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Update, March 10: The agent will not face charges, per the District Attorney’s Office, which did not provide additional information to reporters.
An off-duty FBI agent shot and killed a dog Monday evening in Rittenhouse, garnering a protest by animal rights activists and raising a host of questions.
The owner of the deceased animal would likely have to move forward with legal action seeking a penalty, per city and state law. Past precedent shows criminal charges in animal shooting cases are very rare.
And FBI agents are allowed to use their firearms if they feel they’re in danger, as the shooter in this case — identified as Special Agent in Charge Jacqueline Maguire, the leader of Philly’s FBI Field Office — apparently did.
The altercation near 16th and Spruce began with a tussle between Maguire’s dog and the 7-year-old pit bull owned by Maria Esser, per CBS3. All of them were on the leash, according to PPD Deputy Commissioner Frank Vanore.
Maguire’s dog was attacked by the larger dog, and the agent tried to break them up without a weapon at first, Vanore said the day after the incident: “When she tried to get her dog back, I think the dog attacked her, and then she discharged her weapon.”
A source who said they viewed security cam footage from the scene had a slightly more detailed take: Maguire had been sitting with dog on lap on a bench outside the Touraine apartment building, they told The Inquirer, when the other person’s dog snatched her pet away. Then the tussle happened, per the source, and Maguire placed her gun on the larger dog’s hind legs and fired.
The FBI and the PPD are investigating. Although Maguire was off-duty, the shooting will follow the same officer involved shooting protocol that takes place every time an officer pulls the trigger. “We’re going to present anything we have, as we do in every discharge that a law enforcement officer has, to the district attorney’s special investigation unit for review,” said Vanore.
Here’s what to know about the relevant law and other situations where dogs have been shot.
Is it legal to shoot an animal in Philadelphia?
It depends on the status of the animal and the situation. Animal cruelty, of course, is illegal.
But it is legal to kill an animal to protect human or animal life, or to prevent serious wounding, per Pa. law. So the critical question on legality is often the degree of danger an attacking animal poses.
“Pennsylvania is a very strict state when it comes to animal statutes, it’s a very unfavorable state to animals, in my experience,” Kristina Bergsten, attorney and founder of the Animal Law Firm, told Billy Penn.
Instead of what’s called the objective person standard, Bergsten explained, when it comes to animal attacks the question is one of strict liability, which can be applied based on the experience of the person who injured or killed the animal. That’s why additional info can be so important, per Bergsten.
With only the accounts of people involved, “there is little to no defense for the dog’s behavior if there is no third party witness or video footage.”
“It’s very difficult to get around the affirmative defense of ‘the dog was attacking me,’ because it is such an expansive definition,” Bergsten said.
Last year, Philadelphia resident Dwayne Patrick shot and killed a dog “running loose” in North Philly that was attacking a woman and child. Patrick used a legally owned firearm, and the police quickly made clear he wouldn’t be facing charges. It’s unclear if the dogs in question had owners.
Can an off-duty FBI agent use their gun at any time?
The Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act of 2004 allows for federal officers to carry a concealed weapon with very few limitations as long as they are also carrying ID.
Off-duty law enforcement officers are generally allowed to “self-activate” if they see a crime unfolding.
Federal officers are only allowed to use force “that is objectively reasonable to effectively gain control of an incident,” while protecting the safety of themselves and others, according to Department of Justice statute. The policy abides by the “reasonableness” standard at the root of use of force policies across U.S. law enforcement.
Use of deadly force is sanctioned for FBI agents in the face of “imminent danger of death or serious physical injury” to the officer or someone else.
The FBI is conducting an internal review around Maguire’s actions.
Does it change things if civilians are around?
Law enforcement officers are subject to the state’s law on reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum charge of two years. For instance, the former Sharon Hill officers involved in the fatal shooting of Fanta Bility each pleaded guilty to ten counts of reckless endangerment.
Reckless endangerment is defined as action that “places or may place another person in danger of death or serious bodily injury.” It’s unclear whether any humans were put at risk Monday evening, but the police haven’t indicated anything to that effect.
What are the laws about pets getting in fights?
Philadelphia law specifies that intended dog fighting isn’t the only legally liable form.
City code states that “No person shall intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently allow a dog to engage in dog fighting on public or private property.” At this point, there’s no indication that the owner of the slain dog was “allowing” anything that took place Monday evening.
Once an ACCT or police officer arrives at the scene of a dog fight, they’re required to seize the dogs involved, and assess them for injury and rabies. They also ensure the animals are licensed.
Dogs can be returned as long as officials determine the owner won’t endanger them in the future. If that judgment isn’t made, the dog can be impounded and forfeited.
The owner of an attacking dog can be held liable in a civil suit, mostly in the realm of personal injury damages.
What happens when a dog is deemed dangerous?
The city’s charter defines a vicious animal as one that “poses an imminent danger to humans or to domesticated animals,” or has a history of harming people or animals.
When a dog is deemed dangerous in Pennsylvania, police can file a complaint with a district judge and have the owner of the dog charged. Once that occurs, the owner is subject to new fees, enclosure guidelines, and forms of public notice of their pet.
Philly’s Animal Care and Control Team has more details.
Will police release footage of the incident?
When it comes to publicly sharing footage of these incidents, law enforcement agencies are loath to do so, in Bergsten’s experience with municipal and state police forces as an attorney.
The fact that Maguire was off-duty at the time of the shooting ought to make the footage less guarded, in Bergsten’s view, who generally advocates for more transparency when it comes to animal shootings. People should be more aware of the wide legal berth that exists for killing dogs, she said.
“We can’t have an honest and frank discussion about what needs to change,” Bergsten said, “if the other side of the conversation is not given complete information.”