An appeals court yesterday breathed new life into a lawsuit challenging Denver's ban on pit bulls. The case and the ban itself stir emotional debate on all sides because it places owners with deep emotional bonds to their dogs squarely in the crosshairs of those concerned over the safety issues posed by an allegedly dangerous breed.
Denver, in response to such safety concerns, passed an ordinance in 1989 banning ownership of dogs generally described as "pit bulls" (using breed descriptions from the AKC) . The law says that pit bulls found in Denver are subject to impoundment, and, if the dog is established to be a pit bull at a hearing, it will be destroyed "unless the owner pays the costs of impoundment and agrees to permanently remove the animal from Denver". Morever, a violation of the ordinance is also a criminal offense with a maximum 1 year imprisonment and $1000 fine.
As suggested, the law isn't particularly new and state courts had previously rejected challenges to the ban's constitutionality. In this case, a lower federal court had dismissed all claims brought by the three pit bull owners early on, but a court of appeals yesterday ruled that, to the extent the owners had suffered past consequences due to Denver's ban on pit bulls, they could proceed on a claim that the pit bull ban was "not rationally related to a legitimate government interest."
The court acknowledged that Denver clearly had a legitimate interest in public safety and protection. However, the court found the law might not be "rational" based on plaintiffs' argument relying on current scientific knowledge, which may suggest that breed specific bans are irrational. As a result, even though courts have historically upheld past bans, there may now be enough facts and information for a court to find otherwise. Although the ruling does revive the dog owners' challenge, it should probably be noted that every assumption was made in their favor. It remains to be seen whether their suit will succeed under a court's closer gaze.
For those wondering what pit bulls law applies to them or if a city they are moving to considers pit bulls illegal, the fact is that there are actually many local pit bull ordinances around the country. Although no state currently bans pit bulls, there are a number of municipalities or counties, that do go so far as to entirely ban pit bulls, such as Denver, Kansas City, and Miami-Dade County. Noteably, Miami-Dade county's pit bull ban was ruled unenforeable last March because it was too vague in defining what constitutes a pit bull.
However, breed specific bans aside, many cities do impose heightened licensing requirements for pit bulls such as increased fees, proof that a renter has their landlord's permission to have a pit bull on the premises, etc. Some places may also require muzzles on pit bulls taken out in public (and obviously leashes, like any other dog). Pit bull owners should stay informed about the laws in their area, and call local authorities, rescues, shelters or similar organizations for specific information on applicable ownership and licensing laws.