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What Are The Penalties For Allowing Dangerous Animals To Run At Large In Michigan?

Owning an animal of any kind, whether as a pet or as an investment, can bring great reward but also comes with great responsibility. If such animals escape from the owner and cause personal injury and property damage, then the owner can expect to face civil liability and a possible money judgment. However, if the animal is classified to be inherently dangerous, then the owner may also be subject to potential criminal sanctions.

"Dangerous animal" means a dog or other animal that bites or attacks a person, or a dog that bites or attacks and causes serious injury or death to another dog while the other dog is on the property or under the control of its owner. MCL 287.321(a). A "serious injury" is "permanent, serious disfigurement, serious impairment of health, or serious impairment of a bodily function of a person." MCL 287.321(e).

However, a "dangerous animal" does NOT include any of the following:

  • An animal that bites or attacks a person who is knowingly trespassing on the property of the animal's owner. MCL 287.321(a)(i).
  • An animal that bites or attacks a person who provokes or torments the animal. MCL 287.321(a)(ii). "Provoke" means to perform a willful act or omission that an ordinary and reasonable person would conclude is likely to precipitate the bite or attack by an ordinary dog or animal. MCL 287.321(d). "Torment" means an act or omission that causes unjustifiable pain, suffering, and distress to an animal, or causes mental and emotional anguish in the animal as evidenced by its altered behavior, for a purpose such as sadistic pleasure, coercion, or punishment that an ordinary and reasonable person would conclude is likely to precipitate the bite or attack. MCL 287.321(f).
  • An animal that is responding in a manner that an ordinary and reasonable person would conclude was designed to protect a person if that person is engaged in a lawful activity or is the subject of an assault. MCL 287.321(a)(iii).
  • Livestock used for human food and fiber or animals used for service to human beings. MCL 287.321(a)(iv). Livestock includes, but is not limited to, cattle, swine, sheep, llamas, goats, bison, equine, poultry, and rabbits. MCL 287.321(b).

The actions of a "dangerous animal" can create criminal liability for the owner as follows:

  • An owner (1) that owned or harbored a dog or other animal, and (2) that dog or other animal was a "dangerous animal", and (3) that the owner knew met the definition of a dangerous animal, and (4) that animal causes the death of a person, contrary to MCL 287.323(1), is guilty of involuntary manslaughter, a felony, punishable by any or all of the following:
  1. Up to 15 years in prison;
  2. A fine up to $7,500.00;
  3. Payment for the costs of prosecution. MCL 287.323(5).
  4. District court judge or magistrate, after a hearing determining that the animal is a dangerous animal that caused serious injury or death, shall order the destruction of the animal at the owner's expense. MCL 287.322(3).
  • An owner (1) that owned or harbored a dog or other animal, and (2) that dog or other animal was a "dangerous animal", (3) that the owner knew met the definition of a dangerous animal, and (4) that animal causes serious injury other than death to another person, contrary to MCL 287.323(2), is guilty of a felony punishable by any or all of the following:
  1. Up to 4 years in prison;
  2. A fine up to $2,000.00;
  3. 500 hours or more of community service;
  4. Payment for the costs of prosecution. MCL 287.323(5).
  5. District court judge or magistrate, after a hearing determining that the animal is a dangerous animal that caused serious injury or death, shall order the destruction of the animal at the owner's expense. MCL 287.322(3).
  • An owner of an animal previously adjudicated to be a dangerous animal attacks or bites a person and causes an injury that is not a serious injury, contrary to MCL 287.323(3), is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by any or all of the following:
  1. Up to 90 days in jail
  2. A fine between $250.00 and $500.00;
  3. 240 hours or more of community service;
  4. Payment for the costs of prosecution. MCL 287.323(5).
  5. District court judge or magistrate, after a hearing determining that the animal is a dangerous animal that did not cause serious injury or death but is likely to do so in the future or has been adjudicated a dangerous animal in the past, may order the destruction of the animal at the owner's expense. MCL 287.322(3).
  • An owner of an animal previously adjudicated to be a dangerous animal allows the animal to run at large, contrary to MCL 287.323(4), is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by any or all of the following:
  1. Up to 90 days in jail
  2. A fine between $250.00 and $500.00;
  3. 240 hours or more of community service;
  4. Payment for the costs of prosecution. MCL 287.323(5).
  5. District court judge or magistrate, after a hearing determining that the animal is a dangerous animal that did not cause serious injury or death but is likely to do so in the future or has been adjudicated a dangerous animal in the past, may order the destruction of the animal at the owner's expense. MCL 287.322(3).

A dangerous animal causing serious injury or death is NOT a strict liability crime but requires criminal intent, meaning that the owner knew that his or her animal met the definition of a dangerous animal under MLC 287.321(a). People v Janes, 302 Mich App 34; 836 NW2d 883 (2013). This means that the prosecutor has the burden of proof of showing that the owners knew or had reason to know that the animal was, in fact, dangerous due to demonstrative prior acts. As the Michigan Court of Appeals articulated, it is "[u]nthinkable that the Legislature intended to subject law-abiding, well-intentioned citizens to a possible four-year prison term if, despite genuinely and reasonably believing their animal to be safe around other people and animals, the animal nevertheless harms someone." Id at 49. Appellate courts have overturned convictions if there is no evidence that the animal never previously bit or attacked a person. For example, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed a conviction where, even though the prosecutor showed the defendant's dog "attacked the fence and lawnmower tires", the fact that there was no proof the dog set upon another person with any violent force in the past does not fit the definition of "dangerous animal". People v Ridge, 319 Mich App 393; 901 NW2d 406 (2017).

However, keep in mind that an owner of an animal that escapes criminal responsibility may still be liable for injuries sustained in civil court. In fact, a dog that bites another person subjects the owner to strict liability and can lead to substantial money damages.

When you are faced with the prospect of going to court over your animal's actions, it is imperative that you have the guidance and support of a skilled lawyer in your corner. If you or a loved one is charged with any crime, do not hesitate to contact the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC today.

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