Criminal Penalties for a Dog Bite

Under city, county and state laws, dog owners can do jail time after dog attacks.

Criminal prosecution of a dog owner: a primer

When a dog has seriously injured a person, the dog owner may face criminal prosecution.  A number of steps are taken before charges are filed. The charges themselves can differ greatly, providing two different avenues that could lead to a criminal conviction. 

In most jurisdictions, when a person “brings charges” he is simply making a report to the police or sheriff. The officers take the report. It then is reviewed by a detective and, if the detective deems the incident to be sufficiently serious, he or she further investigates it. The detective attempts to determine whether enough witnesses and evidence seem to prove the commission of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. 

At regular intervals, the detectives bring their case files to the local prosecutor’s office. The files are put into three piles: do nothing, file this case if you want, and definitely file this case. The prosecutors read all three piles, or just two of them, or just one of them. There are more detectives at the prosecutors office who may or may not do some investigating of their own. Eventually, the prosecutor commences criminal proceedings, or doesn’t. 

The point of all this is that it is the prosecutor who brings the criminal charges, not the complaining person or the police. Furthermore, it is the prosecutor who decides what those charges will be, not the complaining person, and not the police.

In a case involving dogs and dog owners, the officer who takes the report might be a sworn police officers or sheriff, but might not be. It depends on exactly who enforces the animal control laws in the jurisdiction: the police or sheriff, the animal control department which consists of sworn animal control officers, a humane society like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or the animal control department of another jurisdiction. 

The officer evaluates the case in relation to the jurisdiction’s “dangerous dog laws.”  These are laws which define what behavior is unacceptable on the part of a dog, and then set forth conditions of confinement and whether the authorities can euthanize the dog. If the officer believes the triggering incident to be sufficiently serious, he or she then tries to find enough proof to establish the case by a preponderance of the evidence. 

If the evidence appears to be sufficient, the officer issues a summons which requires the dog owner appear at a hearing in “dog court” and produce evidence in defense of the dog. The dog owner can avoid the hearing by stipulating that the dog is dangerous and agreeing to the conditions of confinement, or by surrendering the dog for euthanasia or adoption if the authorities agree. 

“Dog court” is a proceeding in which the animal control officer or police try to prove that the dog fits the jurisdiction’s definition of a dangerous dog. After the prosecution evidence is received, the dog owner has the right to defend the dog by producing witnesses and other evidence, as well as argument that the dog does not fit the definition of a dangerous dog, or that only one or two of the conditions of confinement should be imposed on the dog. Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips’ book, Defending Your Dog, goes into the process in depth and is used by the owners of good dogs to avoid “convictions” and harsh “sentences” in dog court. 

If the dog is adjudicated to be a dangerous dog, the dog owner is ordered to obey various conditions of confinement, obey other conditions such as maintaining a certain level of insurance on the dog, or sometimes to surrender the dog for euthanasia. The dog owner has limited rights of appeal. 

The “dangerous dog laws” rarely establish significant criminal penalties for the dog owner. Nevertheless, there can be significant criminal consequences if a dog was previously adjudicated to be a dangerous dog, or if the dog owner violated any of the conditions of confinement or did not surrender the dog for euthanasia. 

There is a second direction that authorities can take to criminally prosecute a dog owner: the general criminal laws of the jurisdiction.  For example, the person having ownership or custody of the dog at the time of injury to a person might be charged with homicide, assault, child endangerment or any other general criminal offense that suits the circumstances.  This tactic is far more common in cases involving serious injury or the death of a human being.  

It is interesting to note that only a few states have specific criminal laws relating to incidents involving a dog as the means of inflicting injury on a person.  For example, California has a penal code section which refers to a “mischievous animal” that injures or kills a person as a result of the negligence of the defendant.  This law is vague as to what constitutes “mischievous animal,” and there have been a number of court battles over this vagueness.  To illustrate how it was applied, the main defendant in the famous Diane Whipple murder case was convicted of owning a mischievous animal and, also, second degree murder for the same incident.  

So, the specific laws involving dogs as an instrumentality of inflicting harm are not available in most of the states, and in states like California, where such laws exist, they are not necessarily helpful.

Specific criminal charges against dog owners

Causing the death of a person by a known vicious animal
Examples of criminal prosecutions
Death as first degree murder
Death as second degree murder
Felony conviction for mayhem where injury is especially serious
Felony or misdemeanor for injury by dog ordered or trained to fight, attack or kill
Felony or misdemeanor for injury by vicious dog or “mischievous animal”
Felony or misdemeanor for using dog as deadly weapon
Manslaughter resulting from death during commision of misdemeanor per misdemeanor – manslaughter rule
Manslaughter resulting from death caused by negligence
Misdemeanor based on degree of injury inflicted by attacking dog
Misdemeanor for destruction of attacking dog needed as evidence
Misdemeanor to fail to quarantine or produce animal, or give information about animal
Lesser used criminal laws

Defenses to criminal charges involving dogs

Defending a dog and its owner
Defending against criminal charges: case study of People v. Maureen Faibish
Defending against criminal charges: double jeopardy
The Tyler Huston case