The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case of Nikita Smith, who sued Detroit police after a narcotics raid on her home resulted in three of her dogs being shot dead.
Last year, U.S. District Court Judge George Caram Steeh III dismissed Smith's lawsuit ruling her dogs amounted to "contraband" under the Fourth Amendment because they were unlicensed.
"When a person owns a dog that is unlicensed, in the eyes of the law it is no different than owning any other type of illegal property," Judge Steeh reasoned.
However, the Sixth Circuit found that Smith was entitled to due process under Michigan law before her dogs were killed or seized.
The court also found that, even if the they were unlicensed, the dogs were still protected by the Fourth Amendment from unreasonable seizure.
"By guaranteeing process to dog owners before their unlicensed dogs are killed, Michigan law makes clear that the owners retain a possessory interest in their dogs," the appeals court wrote in its ruling.
"This is particularly so in the context of everyday property that is not inherently illegal, such as some drugs, but instead is subject to jurisdiction-specific licensing or registration requirements, such as cars or boats or guns. Just as the police cannot destroy every unlicensed car or gun on the spot, they cannot kill every unlicensed dog on the spot."
Previously, courts have established pets are protected under the Fourth Amendment from unreasonable search and seizure. But this is the first time federal courts have considered whether or not an unlicensed pet is protected property under the Fourth Amendment, even if it's in violation of a city or state code.
"Today's opinion is enormously important because, as a practical matter, the vast majority of dogs are not licensed and police shoot dogs every day in a this country. The police-dog-shooting problem is especially bad in the City of Detroit," Smith's attorney Chris Olson says.
"Had the Court affirmed the district court's decision, police officers in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee could summarily execute any dog without recourse in the event that the officers, like the defendants in this case, later discovered that the dog was not licensed. The opinion establishes that pet owners' Fourth Amendment rights do not depend on a license. More importantly, the opinion foreclosed a post hoc 'get out of jail free card' for police officers that unreasonably shoot dogs every day in this country."
In her lawsuit, Smith claimed officers shot one of her dogs through closed bathroom door and described the police at her home as a "death squad" as they shot her three dogs after entering her home with a search warrant.
Earlier this year, Detroit police settled a lawsuit for $225,000 with Ashley Franklin and Kenneth Savage who sued the department after officers also shot their three dogs while they were enclosed behind a fence, according to Reason.com.
Police claimed they shot the dogs so they could confiscate several potted marijuana plants in their backyard.