Saturday, July 27, 2013

No Strict Liability for Dog Owners under Dangerous Animals Act

"Today, there are roughly 4,500 federal crimes on the books.  And still many more regulations and rules that, if not abided by, result in criminal penalties, including incarceration.  Many of these laws impose criminal penalties – often felony penalties – for violations of federal regulations.  Americans are expected to know it is wrong to commit murder or burglary or engage in an act of terrorism, regardless of what the law says.  But today Americans must contend with literally thousands of obscure and cumbersome federal regulations, a simple misreading or ignorance of a regulation can land a person in prison."  Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Chairman of the Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations Subcommittee and head of Congress' Over-Criminalization Task Force.

Though Congress appears to be taking steps to reduce the explosion of the enactment of federal criminal statutes undertaken in the past 25 years, yesterday's opinion from the Michigan Court of Appeals at least appears to be the judiciary's best effort to reign in the Michigan Legislature's emulation of federal over-criminalization.

In People v Janes, Docket No.312490, the issue was whether the Michigan Legislature intended that dog owners be penalized criminally (a four-year felony in this case) when their dogs injure or kill another person, regardless of whether the dog's owner had any previous knowledge of the dangerousness of the animal.  Judge Michael Kelly, joined by Judge Stephen Borello, held that the Legislature did not intend strict liability for dog owners under the Dangerous Animals Act, MCL 287.323.  Judge Kathleen Jansen dissented.

In May, 2012, John Wesley Janes was recovering from knee surgery at the home of Cheryl Anderson in rural Alger County, home of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and part of the Hiawatha National Forest.  Anderson already owned a cocker spaniel, and about three weeks prior to the incident, Janes acquired a pit bull from the local animal shelter.  The animal shelter employees had not reported any aggressive tendencies of the dog and, in fact when the previous owner had dropped the dog at the shelter, the owner signed a statement that the dog had not bitten anyone within the previous two weeks.

On May 18, a young girl had been dropped off by the school bus in front of the Anderson home.  As the girl approached the house, a woman who was in the house saw the two dogs run toward the girl.  The woman ran out to stop the dogs from jumping on the girl.  She was able to control the cocker spaniel, but the pit bull bit the girl on the arm and face and would not stop.  The woman picked up the girl to try and keep her from further injury, and the pit bull began biting the girl's legs.  Finally, Janes' adult son, who was also living at the residence, was able to control the dog and get it in the house.  The injuries to the girl's legs were the most serious: "her knee was torn up bad, right to the bone."

The district court held the preliminary examination and ruled that MCL 287.323(2) was a strict liability offense and bound Janes over to the circuit court.  Janes filed a motion to quash, claiming that the offense required the prosecution to prove, among other things, Janes's knowledge that the animal was dangerous prior to the incident in order for him to stand trial on the criminal charge.  The circuit court denied his motion to quash, but did hold the prosecution must establish Janes's knowledge at the upcoming trial and that the jury instructions would encompass such an element.  The prosecution sought interlocutory leave to appeal.

The Animal Control Act is silent on what intent the defendant must possess in order to be guilty of the offense.  However, in concluding in Janes's favor, the Court relied heavily on the reasoning from the United States Supreme Court in Morisette v United States, 342 US 246 (1952), and adopted by our Supreme Court in People v Quinn, 440 Mich 178; 487 NW2d 194 (1992), which held that the requirement the defendant must possess a particular mens rea for any criminal offense "is as universal and persistent in mature systems of law as belief in freedom of the human will and a consequent ability and duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil."  Therefore, the Court concluded that "we must infer that the Legislature intended
some criminal intent in the absence of an indication that the Legislature expressly or impliedly intended to dispense with that element."  Here, the Legislature had not.

I obviously agree with the Court's reasoning here, even if it may seem that the Court is not taking into account the vicious nature of the girl's injuries, and the public may look upon this opinion as restricting the public's interest in punishing people that own dangerous dogs, especially pit bulls.  However, civil remedies are always available to victims of dog attacks under much more expansive theories of recovery than what is necessary to convict in a criminal case.  The rush to criminalize behavior that, in the past, was usually seen as tragically negligent or accidental, with the mind set of most Legislatures that we have to look like we are doing something, only serves felonize the population and fill the state's prisons.  So does allowing prosecutors to proceed against people without first establishing the intended to do something wrong.

Janes was represented by Kathryn S. Denholm of Manistique, Michigan.  Alger County Prosecutor Karen Bahrman argued the case on behalf of the People.

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