Can I Be Held Criminally Responsible For the Actions Of My Pet?


You could be charged for a crime your animal “commits.” Okay, animals can’t commit crimes but this is serious stuff. If your dog attacks a person or worse yet, kills someone, you can be facing some very serious criminal charges.

But it needn’t be your dog or even an aggressive act by an animal you own. One Vermont man is being charged with negligent involuntary manslaughter when his roaming bull was hit by a vehicle, killing the driver and the bull. The bull’s owner faces a sentence of up to 15 years in prison if he is convicted. The significant fact is the bull owner’s negligence. It is alleged that he did not properly contain the animal and this wasn’t the first time the bull had been seen wandering off the property; the bull’s owner had been cited five times for allowing his animals to wander off the pasture. In fact, it was reported that minutes before the fatal accident, another driver had warned the bull’s owner that the bull was in the road.

It is more common though that we hear of criminal charges against the owner of an aggressive dog that has attacked a person. In the famous San Francisco case, World Cup Lacrosse player and coach Diane Whipple was fatally attacked by her neighbors’ dogs. The dogs’ owners were indicted for second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.   Again the significant fact is the negligence on the part of the animals’ owners. It was reported that the dogs were vicious but the owners refused to take precautions to restrain the animals. One of the dogs’ owners was convicted on the involuntary manslaughter charge and the other was convicted of second degree murder; both were sentenced to prison.

But what if, for example, your gentle poodle that has never been aggressive, suddenly and out-of-the-blue attacks and mauls someone visiting your home? Would you face criminal charges? The answer is almost certainly “no” (although you would very likely find yourself being sued in civil court). In this case, there was no evidence of your negligence or intent and thus no criminal “mens rea” (the intention or knowledge of a wrong-doing).

On the other hand, what if you have a dog that you know to be aggressive and you have not properly restrained the dog; the dog breaks free to run about the neighborhood where it attacks your neighbor? In such a scenario, you might very well be charged with a crime commensurate with your dog’s act (e.g., assault, mayhem, manslaughter and even second-degree murder). The distinction between this scenario and the previous one is your knowledge of the dog’s temperament and your failure to keep the dog safely restrained (negligence). It is even possible that you could face criminal misdemeanor charges for negligently allowing your “dangerous” dog to roam unrestrained even though the dog does not hurt anyone.

The key defense against criminal charges for an act committed by an animal you possess and control is to prove that you were either unaware of the animal’s potential to harm or that you were not negligent in your control of the animal; in some cases, both of these affirmative defenses are indicated. If you have any questions about criminal charges you face for the acts of your animal contact Orange County Criminal Defense Attorney William Weinberg at 949-474-8008 or at