A Lawsuit Challenges The Constitutionality Of Denver’s Pit Bull Ban

A lawsuit has been filed in federal court in Denver that challenges the Denver pit bull ban.

Denver bans pit bulls defined as “any dog that is an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits” of these breeds. Denver Mun. Code §8-55

The ordinance makes it unlawful to “own, possess, keep, exercise control over, maintain, harbor, transport, or sell” any pit bull dog within the city. Denver Mun. Code §8-55

The ban was first enacted in 1989 but because of a state law passed in 2004 that banned breed specific legislation, Colorado Rev. Stat. §18-9-204.5(5)(b), Denver suspended enforcement of its pit bull ordinance. Enforcement of the pit bull ban resumed on May 9, 2005 when a court ruled the city and county of Denver could enforce the ban.

According to the Complaint filed in this case since reinstatement of the ban on May 9, 2005, the city has killed at least 1,100 dogs believed to be pit bulls or dogs possessing the majority of physical traits of those breeds. Some estimates place the death toll much higher, at least 2000 or more.

Denver Assistant City Attorney Kory Nelson, a proponent of the ban has insisted pit bull attacks are “more likely” to hurt someone seriously than other dogs.

Two of the plaintiffs, pit bull owners, Sonya Dias and Hillary Engel, were forced to leave Denver with their dogs because of the ban. Neither dog had ever threatened or hurt anyone or another animal.

Dias rescued 3-year old Gryffindor in Griffin, Georgia, after “finding him chained and bearing signs of abuse, including possible use as a “bait” animal by dogfighters”. She moved from Denver rather than surrender him when the ban was reinstated.

In Hillary Engel’s case an animal control officer threatened to seize the dog, Cysco, an 8 year old. Ms. Engel immediately contacted Animal Control and was advised to submit Cysco to an evaluation if she had any doubts about whether Cysco was prohibited under the Pit Bull Ordinance.

On May 9, 2005 Ms. Engel took Cysco to Animal Control for the evaluation. The evaluation was conducted by three individuals said to be “experts” in identifying animals prohibited under the Pit Bull Ordinance.

Following the evaluation, Ms. Engel was informed by an unknown Animal Control official that although Cysco was “beautiful and friendly, she looked too much like a Pit Bull to remain in Denver”. However, the official gave Ms. Engel 48 hours to remove Cysco from Denver.

A third plaintiff, Sheryl White, claims Sherman, her two year old pit bull, was seized by an Animal Control officer who was responding to a neighbor’s report that she had a pit bull dog. Sherman also had never displayed menacing or threatening behavior; he had never hurt anyone or another animal.

Ms. White later tried to see her dog at the city shelter but was not allowed to do so. Though the ordinance does not require this, to remove the dog from the shelter, she and her husband, Dana White, were required to bring a third person who agreed to take possession of the dog and remove him from the city.

On December 23, 2005, Ms. Lauren Krieger signed a form attesting to her willingness to remove Sherman from Denver.

Mr. White was also required to sign a form stating: “I, Dana White, in consideration for the release of my pitbull dog from the Division of Animal Control do hereby agree to immediately remove the pit bull dog from the city and county of Denver.”

Mr. White was then required to sign a second form stating that “I, Dana White, . . .agree that Sherman, black-white, male, is an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or exhibits the majority of physical traits of any (1) or more of the above breeds.” After the signature block, the form states, “Note: signing this document waives your right under D.R.M.C. §(f) to contest the determination that this animal is a pit bull.”

Sherman was released and removed from Denver.

The Whites requested a hearing anyway to challenge the determination Sherman was prohibited by the ordinance. Based on evaluations by three Animal Control employees, the hearing officer determined Sherman to be a prohibited animal under the Pit Bull Ordinance. Animal Control refused to provide the Whites with copies of the evaluations.

After charges for violating the ordinance were dropped, Ms. White returned to Denver with Sherman.

The plaintiffs claim the City and County of Denver violate rights to due process by (1) seizing animals without a prior hearing, (2) summarily executing dogs whose owners have one previous violation of the ordinance, and (3) coercing dog owners to waive their rights to due process and self-incrimination before they are allowed to remove seized dogs from the jurisdiction.

The plaintiffs also claim the ordinance is unconstitutionally vague and does not give dog owners fair warning of the prohibited conduct. The plaintiffs point out the ordinance refers to breed standards most people would not be able to identify. After all, even animal control relied on “experts” to decide if Engel’s and White’s dogs were banned by the ordinance. And, the so called experts would not even give Whites their methodology for determining whether a dog is banned. So, how does a dog owner know if he or she is violating the law?

The plaintiffs further allege it is a violation of their liberty and property interests protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution for the city to seize and kill dogs that pose no nuisance or threat to the public safety.

The Progressive Law Center has joined the suit which also names as defendants Denver mayor, John W. Hickenlooper, Nancy Severson, Manager of the Denver Department of Environmental Health, Doug Kelley, Director of the Division of Animal Control, and Major Juan Zalasar, the Supervisor of the Animal Control investigators for the Denver Division of Animal Care and Control.

The Plaintiffs have requested certification as a class, claiming they represent persons whose animals were seized by Defendants under the Pit Bull Ordinance after April 8, 2005 and persons who removed their animals from Animal Control after April 8, 2005 and signed self-incriminating statements and/or due process waivers.

You can help! Contact Denver officials and let them know it’s time to repeal the pit bull ban! Click here to find names and contact information for the mayor and council members.

4 thoughts on “A Lawsuit Challenges The Constitutionality Of Denver’s Pit Bull Ban”

  1. This is crazy, I want to move to aurora with my staffy mix and they are murdering dogs left and right and the shelters say “they are just doing their job”, sounds like Nazi’s, they know it is wrong but keep killing. This is so wrong in so many ways the only way it is going to change if all dogs are deemed dangerous and people realize how stupid it is.

  2. I need to know where I can actually live with my pit that’s in California, near the city of Denver, without fear of losing him to this ridiculous ban.

  3. Centennial and Parker are both pit bull safe and close to the metro area. Centennial has its own dangerous dog law that is not breed-specific and they are very tolerant. However, they do share a very close boundary line with Aurora, which is another pit bull hating city and very aggressive toward eradicating them, so you want to be careful not to let your dog wander out of your yard if you live on the eastern edge of Centennial. Englewood is a great choice; they deliberately chose not to have BSL and it’s a nice area to live in. Westminster is also pit bull friendly, but a little far from the action being very far north and west. Stay out of Castle Rock, Lone Tree, Commerce City, and Louisville (which is near Boulder), as they all have really awful pit bull bans, especially Louisville. Wherever you are, get a padlock on your gate, because the neighbors here are like Nazis – they will call animal control to “report” you have pit bull, and even if your city is safe, they may open your gate to let the dog out, and then he’ll be picked up for being at large. Happened to my brother.

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