(CN) – The mayor of Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, won partial immunity from claims that his no-pet policy led to alarming raids on public housing communities, resulting in the removal and killing of countless family pets. “[T]here is nothing conscience-shocking about the pet policy itself,” the 1st Circuit ruled.
Residents claimed that Mayor Sol Luis Fontanes, backed by guards and animal-control officers, raided public housing communities and forced residents to surrender their pets or face eviction.
The mayor, other high officials and agents went door to door grabbing pets with animal-catching sticks, bringing them to a van and tranquilizing them, while their horrified owners screamed and cried, and the pets “soiled themselves out of sheer fear and trauma,” the federal lawsuit claimed.
Pet owners allegedly witnessed the defendants “removing, mistreating and injecting their pets – small cats and dogs – with unknown chemicals.”
They claimed that some of the surviving family pets were thrown to their deaths from a 50-foot bridge.
Residents sued Fontanes and the agents who orchestrated the raid, alleging Fourth and 14th Amendment violations and demanding at least $1,500 per pet and $500,000 for the harm inflicted on each pet owner.
The mayor moved to dismiss on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court denied his motion, but the Boston-based federal appeals court partially reversed. The 1st Circuit said the mayor was entitled to immunity on the substantive due process claim, but not on the Fourth Amendment claim for unreasonable search and seizure.
Chief Judge Lynch rejected the mayor’s claim that Fourth Amendment does not protect an individual’s ownership rights in a dog or cat.
The mayor had argued that the plaintiffs lost rights to their pets when they “voluntarily subscribed” to the pet policy by signing their leases.
The plaintiffs disputed this claim, saying the policy was implemented after they moved in, and the policy was provided only in English, though the residents are mostly Spanish-speaking.
“We cannot say on the basis of the pleadings alone that an objective official in the mayor’s position, as a matter of law, would have reasonably concluded his actions in implementing and executing the pet policy were not a violation of the Fourth Amendment,” Lynch concluded.
Fontanes also urged the court to grant him immunity on the claim that his pet policy and its enforcement “shocked the conscience” in violation of the residents’ due process rights. According to the mayor, such a claim can only apply to the treatment of people, not animals.
Judge Lynch disagreed and said the 14th Amendment protects against the deprivation of property. However, the court said it was “reluctant” to resolve “whether the government had an interest sufficient to justify the cruel killing of household pets arbitrarily seized from their owners, even if the government ultimately had a legitimate interest in restricting ownership of pet cats and dogs in public housing.”
The court ultimately skirted the question by instead ruling that the plaintiffs failed to adequately link the mayor to the killing of their seized pets.
“Plaintiffs’ complaint identifies no policy which authorized the killing of pets, much less one which the mayor authorized,” Lynch wrote, adding that the complaint also fails to claim that the mayor “was personally involved in any conscience-shocking conduct during the raids.”