UPDATES & ANALYSIS

9.21

Federal court to hear appeal on Council Bluffs’ pit-bull dog ban

by Rox Laird | September 21, 2022

May a city legally ban the possession of a certain breed of dog – such as so-called pit bulls – on the rationale that the breed is responsible for more injuries than other dog breeds?

That question will be argued Sept. 22 before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit based in St. Louis. The Eighth Circuit has jurisdiction over appeals from seven Midwest states, including Iowa.

A three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit court will hear arguments in the appeal from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, which in 2021 dismissed on summary judgment a suit filed by several owners of pit bull-type dogs. The dog owners argue the pit-bull ban enacted by the City of Council Bluffs in 2005 violates their constitutional rights, including due process and equal protection.

The Council Bluffs ordinance makes it unlawful for any person to own, harbor, or sell “any pit bull” defined in the ordinance as an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, “or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits” of any of those breeds. U.S. District Judge John Jarvey dismissed the dog owners’ claims upon application of rational-basis review to the Council Bluffs ordinance.

Judge Jarvey found that the city had a rational basis for enacting the ordinance based on city statistics from 2004 showing that pit bulls were disproportionately responsible for dog bites in the city, “accounting for almost ten times as many bites as should have occurred based on the licensed number of pit bulls.”

The dog owners urge the Court of Appeals to reverse the District Court. In a brief filed with the appeals court, they argue the city’s ordinance does not pass rational-basis review, citing expert evidence that there is no evidence that behavior of certain dogs can be predicted based on breed, and that pit bulls are no more dangerous than other breeds. Moreover, the dog owners challenge the validity of the city’s use of visual inspections to identify pit bull dogs for purposes of compiling its own statistics.

In response, the city argues that its pit bull ordinance is rationally related to its legitimate interest in reducing dog bites “in order to protect the health and safety of the community.” And it argues the industry standard for identifying dogs is by comparing visual inspection to published breed standards.

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