Pit Bull Identification Ruled Not Admissible

dogIn 2010 in an appeal from a hearing officer’s decision, the Circuit Court for the 11th Judicial Circuit, Miami-Dade County,  ruled that the subjective identification of a dog as a "pit bull" by an animal control officer violated the dog’s owner’s right to due process.

Miami Dade Animal Services provides a 47 point checklist for officers to use to determine if a dog is a pit bull prohibited in the county. In this case the officer testified the dog met 37 of the characteristics for a "pit bull". The county only required at that time that animal control find the dog had 51% of the checklist characteristics to be deemed a pit bull.

The officer in this case testified he  has "(1) certification as an animal control specialist, on February 11, 1994; (2) certification as an animal control specialist, on January 13, 2006; (3) 16 hours of training in the Euthanasia of Animals; (4) 16 hours of training in the Chemical Immobilization of Animals; (5) 4 hour course on Pit Bull Fighting; and (6) a certificate of participation in a Horse Cruelty and Neglect workshop."

But the court found there was no basis to establish the officer is an expert in pit bull identification. If indeed there is such a thing.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., 509 U.S. 579, 594 (1993), held that the constitutional right to due process is violated if scientific or technical methods and principles on which an allegedly expert opinion is based, fail to meet threshold standards: "testing; peer review and publication; potential error rates; standards of operation; and general acceptance in the relevant community." 

The court found there was no evidence offered at all vis a vis pit bull identification "about the process of measuring the data for error rates, because no such statistics are kept; no objective standards for comparison exist. …[T]he County applies a subjective criteria and there is little or no peer review…. Officer Casadevall freely admitted that he merely performs the inspections [to determine if a dog is a pit bull] and does nothing to gather data, perform quality control and validate existing data. He offered nothing in the way of error checking and peer reviews of his work….Here Officer Casadevall was offered as an expert in identifying pit bulls, yet he offered insufficient data when cross examined by [the owner’s] counsel. As he freely admits that there are no procedures in place to verify his findings and validate his previous opinions as to whether he correctly identified pit bulls, the mere quantity of his inspections does not render his opinion reliable. …Thus, we hold that the hearing officer abused his discretion by permitting Officer Casadevall to provide expert testimony.

"This error is not harmless because the record reflects that the hearing officer placed greater weight on the testimony of Officer Casadevall specifically because he deemed him an expert on ‘pit bull dog’ identification. The danger of attaching expert significance to lay testimony, particularly by using terms like ‘test,’ ‘pass,’ ‘fail,’ or ‘points,’ is that such terms give layperson observations an aura of scientific validity that results in unfair prejudice and ultimately harmful error."

The court reversed the hearing officer’s finding the dog, named Kitty, is a "pit bull". The court also determined that the hearing officer’s bias in favor of animal control and against the dog, violated due process. It should be noted 2 veterinarians submitted evidence Kitty is not a "pit bull" based on their comparisons to breed standards. A 3rd veterinarian offered a letter stating Kitty is not a danger.

For the same reason polygraph results, Tarot card readings and the like are inadmissible because they fail to have scientific validity, so too should so-called "pit bull" identifications done by visual inspection.  

The case is Bertha P. Cardelle v. Miami-Dade County Code Enforcement, Case No. 09-206 AP, 2010 Fla. ENV LEXIS 111;  2010 ER FALR 175; 17 Fla. L. Weekly Supp. 923a (March 30, 2010)