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“Dangerous Animal” Definition Clarified by COA

Posted on Thursday, May 17, 2018

  In this case of consolidated appeals of denial of motions to quash their bind-overs to Eaton Circuit Court on charges of owning a dangerous animal, People v Ridge, No. 333790 and People v Olney, No. 333791, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for entry of an order quashing the bind-overs.

FACTS: 

               Defendants Daniel Ridge and Debra Olney are married. At the time of the incident, they owned two dogs. The dog at issue was a "possible pit-bull, Shar-Pei mix" named Roscoe. On September 10, 2015, Jill Flietstra, employee of Scott’s Lawn Care, was spraying the yard next door to the defendants. Both dogs were out in their yard, separated by a chain link fence. Flietstra was spraying the yard when Roscoe got partially under the fence and grabbed her boot. The dog pulled off her boot, came under the fence and attacked her. The neighbors called 911. The police arrived, yelled at the dog who then released Flietstra. When Roscoe turned on the officer, he was shot and killed.

               Neighbors testified that Roscoe barked and attacked the tires of their lawnmowers and that the dogs would bark, jump, and bite the fence. Generally, the neighbors avoided the dogs and were afraid of them.

               Ridge and Olney were charged under MCL 287.323(2) which provides that “if an animal that meets the definition of a dangerous animal MCL 287.321(a) attacks a person and causes serious injury other than death,” the owner is guilty of a 4-year felony. A dangerous animal is defined as “a dog or other animal that bites or attacks a person,…”

Analysis:

               The court looked to People v Janes, 302 Mich App 34 (2013), for clarification of the statute. Judge MJ Kelly wrote: “the Legislature’s decision to limit an owner’s liability to situations in which an animal ‘that meets’ the definition of a dangerous animal ‘attacks’ a person means that the prosecution must prove, in relevant part, that the animal has previously bitten or attacked a person.” Janes, 302 Mich App at 50. To sustain a conviction under the statute, the prosecution must prove that:

 

  • The defendants owned or harbored a dog or other animal,
  • The dog or other animal met the statutory definition of a dangerous animal before the incident at issue,
  • The defendants knew that the dog or other animal met the definition of a dangerous animal, and
  • The animal attacked a person and caused serious injury other than death.

               The court concluded that the Prosecution didn’t introduce any evidence to prove that Roscoe was a “dangerous animal” as defined by the statute. Nor was evidence presented to show that the defendants owned a dangerous animal at the time of the attack and that they knew that the animal was dangerous within the meaning of the statute.

               In other words, Roscoe had never bitten a person prior to the incident, therefore, he didn’t fit the statutory definition of a dangerous animal. And, the defendants did not know the animal was dangerous since he didn’t fit the definition.

               Prosecution argued that whether the dog was a “dangerous animal” was a question for the jury. The court disagreed: “Where the decision entails a question of statutory interpretation, whether the alleged conduct falls within the scope of a penal statute, the issue is question of law….”

               The case was reversed and remanded for entry of an order quashing the bind-over.

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