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Federal appeals court upholds Iowa city’s ban on pit bulls

An Eighth Circuit panel disagreed with dog owners who said the ban violates their due process and equal protection rights.

(CN) — A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that an Iowa city’s ordinance banning possession of pit bulls in city limits does not violate the constitutional rights of dog owners.

Council Bluffs, a city of 62,000 on the state’s western border, passed an ordinance in 2005 that outlaws the possession or sale of pit bulls, which are described as “any dog that is an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier,” or any dog with a majority of the physical traits of one or more of those breeds.

Owners of pit bulls sued the city in federal court, claiming the ordinance violates their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection. U.S. District Judge John Jarvey dismissed the suit on summary judgment, which the dog owners appealed.

A three-judge panel of the St. Louis-based Eighth Circuit affirmed the lower court's ruling on Thursday. Applying the standard of rational basis review – the lowest hurdle for assessing violations of constitutional rights – the court said the dog owners had the burden of negating every conceivable basis that might support the ordinance.

“The record here does not negate every conceivable basis for the Ordinance’s rationality,” U.S. Circuit Judge Duane Benton, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote for the unanimous panel.

“The City had a conceivable basis to believe banning pit bulls would promote the health and safety of Council Bluff citizens,” he added. “After reports that a disproportionate number of dog bites were attributed to pit bulls, the City exercised its police power to regulate the ownership of dogs. The City had to decide where to draw the line on which breeds to ban. While the resulting ordinance may be an imperfect fit, this court cannot second guess or judge the fairness of legislative choices on rational basis review.”

U.S. Circuit Judges James Loken, a George H.W. Bush appointee, and Jonathan Kobes, appointed by Donald Trump, rounded out the panel.

Sara E. Bauer, assistant city attorney for the city of Council Bluffs said Thursday, “The city is pleased that the Court of Appeals confirmed that the ordinance is rationally related to the city’s duty to provide for public safety and welfare concerning dog bites. The city hopes the matter is concluded but will continue to defend the matter as needed.”

Counsel for the dog owners did not responded to requests for comment Thursday.

During oral arguments in the case in September, the dog owners' attorney, David Lopez of Husch Blackwell in Omaha, told the panel the record in the case includes overwhelming expert testimony that there is no rational justification for enforcement of the ban.

But the appeals court said the dog owners’ evidence regarding the relationship between a dog’s breed or physical characteristics and its behavior actually supports some connection between the two. And the dog owners admit that behavior — to some extent — is heritable.

Bauer said at the September hearing the city’s ordinance was prompted by evidence from city records that pit bulls are disproportionally responsible for more attacks. The city’s evidence and the science of dog breeds may not be precise, but she argued that is not the standard under rational basis review. The Eighth Circuit agreed.

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