Often when I speak about the effect of regulation on property rights, I start by telling a story about 10-year old me and my good old sheepdog, Pepin. It’s a simple story about walking a half mile from my house to our local park. Pepin would bounce alongside me wagging his stubby tail and sniffing the world, occasionally “watering” a bush or two, but never straying too far. At the park, I would throw a stick for him until it became either too slimy or chewed up. Then we would walk back home. Not much of a story – just an everyday tale of a boy and his dog. But the passage of time has changed this from a “boy and a dog” tale to one of regulatory excess.
You see, along with property, government seems to have a rather passionate drive to regulate our family pets. My simple walk to the park would now violate layer upon layer of state and local laws, not the least of which are prohibitions against unlicensed and intact dogs, restrictions on the manner in which you may walk a dog, prohibition against a dog “watering” a neighbor’s fence post, and a myriad of rules restricting dogs in parks. A while ago, I tallied up the consequences of my youthful crime spree (cleverly disguised as a walk to the park): around $2,000 in fines, forfeiture of Pepin (he could be returned upon payment of fines, licensing fees and mandatory neutering), and the possibility of as many as 90 days imprisonment. The comparison to restrictive regulation of property is readily apparent.
A recent news story made me think a bit deeper about my “boy and a dog” tale. Last week, police officers in Des Moines, Washington (a suburb of Seattle) shot a killed Rosie, a Newfoundland dog, who had somehow gotten out of her fenced yard and was reported running in the street with children. (See reports here and here) By the time police located her, she was safely contained in a neighbor’s fenced yard. Police opened two gates to enter the yard and then shot Rosie 4 times. The shooting sparked public outrage. But more than that, this incident raises questions about the proper exercise of government force against property (yes, the law looks at pets as property with added intrinsic value).
Washington State recognizes that a person’s relationship with their pet is a property right protected by the State and Federal Constitutions. And yet, thirty years of regulatory expansion have rolled out the red carpet for government agents to enter private property to enforce animal control regulations, including the seizure and/or destruction of family pets. Generally, the police are permitted to use force against private property when confronted by a situation that presents an ongoing, significant threat of serious bodily injury t o an officer or the public. But the shooting of Rosie presents a different set of facts: when the police finally tracked her down, she was safely contained in a fenced yard. The City of Des Moines has ordered that, in addition to a police inquiry, the city will have an outside neutral party conduct an independent inquiry into the shooting.
The youthful “boy and a dog” story that I often recount is now a prelude to a darker cautionary tale about the destructive consequences of unchecked expansion of government power. Property owners (as well as pet owners) should be very interested in following this matter because, at its core, it asks the fundamental question, “where does the Constitution draw a line in the sand?” And as always, the answer to this question will have profound effects beyond those directly impacted by the shooting of Rosie.