Animal Law

Ordinance banning pit bulls in city limits didn’t violate dog owners' constitutional rights, 8th Circuit rules

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A federal appeals court has upheld a Council Bluffs, Iowa, ordinance that bans pit bulls within city limits.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis rejected claims that the ordinance violated dog owners’ rights to equal protection and substantive due process. Judge Duane Benton of Kansas City, Missouri, wrote the Nov. 10 opinion for the appeals court.

The appeals court evaluated the ordinance using rational basis review because the ordinance didn’t involve a fundamental right or a suspect classification. Under that standard, a law is upheld if it is rationally related to a legitimate government interest. To overturn the statute, the plaintiffs would have to negate every conceivable basis that might support the law, the 8th Circuit said.

The 2005 ordinance bans possession or sale of “any dog that is an American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier” or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one of those breeds or any dog with distinguishing characteristics for those breeds as established by the American Kennel Club or the United Kennel Club.

The dog owners had argued that pit bulls are no more dangerous than other similarly sized dogs, and that the city’s method of identifying pit bulls is unreliable. They also pointed to a decision by the 10th Circuit at Denver that allowed a challenge to a pit bull ban.

The appeals court countered that:

    • The city adopted the pit bull ban after the Council Bluffs animal patrol found that pit bulls accounted for a disproportionate number of dog bites in the city during 2003 and 2004. From 2007 to 2020, the number of reported dog bites in the city remained 25% lower than in the years before the pit bull ban. The dog owners acknowledged that some behavioral traits of dogs can be inherited when they argued that environment has a greater influence on dog behavior than genetics, and that traits such as coat color are more heritable than behavioral traits.

    • A study by the dog owners’ expert said a dog’s predominant breed can be accurately identified using visual cues 15% of the time. “This study affirms that visual identifications can, however imperfectly, identify a dog’s breed,” the appeals court said.

    • The 10th Circuit’s decision, Dias v. City and County of Denver, was decided on a motion to dismiss, which assessed whether the complaint stated sufficient allegations to make a legal claim. The Council Bluffs case is before the appeals court on a motion for summary judgment, which is a ruling on the merits when there are no disputes regarding the material facts of a case.

“This court now decides the issue the 10th Circuit avoided,” the 8th Circuit said. “The city had a conceivable basis to believe banning pit bulls would promote the health and safety of” Council Bluffs citizens.

The case is Danker v. the City of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Hat tip to Courthouse News Service, which covered the decision.

See also: “Pit Bull Bias? ABA House OKs resolution urging breed-neutral dog laws” “Florida lawyer faces ethics complaint over pit bull ads” “Top Florida court reprimands ‘Pitbull Lawyer’ for advertising campaign”

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