Challenging Denver’s Pit Bull BanPosted by Megan A. Senatori, ALDF Volunteer Attorney on June 10, 2009
The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit recently released an important decision allowing a case challenging the City of Denver, Colorado’s pit bull breed ban to move forward. The Animal Legal Defense Fund was part of the successful effort.
The history of the Denver pit bull breed ban is long and complicated. The ban was originally enacted by the City of Denver in 1989. Shortly after its enactment, a group of dog owners and humane associations challenged the constitutionality of the ban. The case ultimately was heard by the Colorado Supreme Court, which rejected the challenges and upheld the ban. Colorado Dog Fanciers, Inc. v. City & County of Denver, 820 P.2d 644 (Colo. 1991). Since then, numerous other legal challenges to the ban have been mounted. However, to date, those challenges have been unsuccessful.
In Dias v. The City & County of Denver, three plaintiffs sued the City of Denver, the County of Denver, and certain officials in the District Court of Colorado under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging the pit bull ban. In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs, all of whose companion dogs had been targeted by the City of Denver, alleged that the breed ban was vague on its face and deprived them of procedural due process, substantive due process, and equal protection of the law. The plaintiffs contended that since May 9, 2005, Denver has impounded and killed at least 1,100 dogs pursuant to the breed ban. The plaintiffs sought to invalidate the ban and recover damages for the expenses they incurred in moving out of the city to comply with the ban. Early in the case, Denver moved to dismiss the action. Without allowing any oral argument, the United States District Court for the District of Colorado dismissed the case. The plaintiffs appealed to the Tenth Circuit.
Before the Tenth Circuit, ALDF filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in support of the plaintiffs, highlighting for the Court the close bond between humans and their dogs. The goal of the amicus curiae brief was to stress to the Court the significant and important stakes the case presented for consideration. Under the breed ban, companion dog owners in Denver have been deprived of the companionship of their dogs for no other reason than the fact that their dog either was a pit bull or was perceived to be a pit bull. The Denver ordinance requires no showing that the dog presents a danger or risk to human safety in any respect. Rather, the ban is solely based upon the breed, or perceived breed, of the dog. ALDF does not support breed bans.
Last month, the Tenth Circuit issued its opinion which, among other things, reversed the District Court for dismissing the plaintiffs’ substantive due process claim at such an early stage of the litigation. The Tenth Circuit noted that the plaintiffs’ legal challenge to the statute was not controlled by the numerous other decisions rejecting challenges to pit bull bans. This is because the plaintiffs contended that although pit bull bans may have been justified 20 years ago by the then-existing body of knowledge, the state of science in 2009 no longer supports continuation of the ban. The Tenth Circuit noted that the plaintiffs’ claim found some support in the American Kennel Club and United Kennel Club standards themselves, which describe the American Pit Bull Terrier as an “extremely friendly” breed and “excellent family companions.” Therefore, while not ruling on the merits of the plaintiffs’ legal challenge to the ban, the Tenth Circuit reversed the District Court’s dismissal of the case and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Given the Tenth Circuit’s ruling, the case will now proceed in the District Court, where the plaintiffs will be able to present their case that the Denver breed ban is not rationally related to a legitimate government interest. In other words, the plaintiffs will be arguing that while protecting the public from dangerous dogs is an important goal, the Denver breed ban is an irrational way to serve that goal and, therefore, should be unlawful.