L.A. euthanized a homeless man’s 18 pet pigeons. He can sue the city, court rules

Federal judges in California ruled Tuesday that a homeless man’s constitutional rights may have been violated when Los Angeles euthanized 18 of his pet pigeons.

That gives the homeless man, Martino Recchia, another shot at suing the city for euthanizing his birds, after a lower court ruled in the city’s favor.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said Tuesday that it’s an open question whether or not Recchia’s Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution were violated when Los Angeles took his eight outwardly healthy birds without a warrant. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable search and seizure.

Recchia was living on the street with 20 pet birds when animal control officers confronted him on Nov. 3, 2011, court records said. The birds (18 pigeons, a crow and a seagull) were housed in a dozen or so cardboard cages and boxes.

Recchia let officers inspect the containers, which were covered with towels and blankets. Inside, officers discovered that all of the birds had food and water. But authorities also found that the newspaper lining the bottom of the cages was soaking wet, that the containers were covered in feces and that the birds didn’t have room to fly around, court records said.

Beyond eight outwardly healthy pigeons, many of the pets were “in dire physical condition,” Judge Ronald M. Gould wrote in the panel’s opinion.

One had a baseball-sized tumor on its abdomen. Another was shaking and walked in circles. A third pigeon had a shriveled eye. Others had feather loss and couldn’t move, or had wobbling necks, missing toes or toenails so long they had curled into circles. Their beaks were overgrown, and they were generally “deformed, distressed or diseased,” court records said.

Recchia told officers he’d rescued the ailing pigeons and cared for them so they were in “the same or better condition than that in which he had found them,” court records said.

Still, authorities decided to seize the unhealthy birds. Recchia told the officer he would take the healthy birds to a friend’s home in Silverlake, but he was unable to provide that person’s name or address — so officers decided to seize all of the birds. They told Recchia he had 10 days to request a post-seizure hearing on his 20 pets.

But before 10 days were up, a city veterinarian decided all the pigeons needed to be euthanized — even the ostensibly healthy ones, because it was possible they were carrying pathogens, court records said.

And that's what leaves Los Angeles open to claims that Recchia's rights were violated, the judges said: “[T]here is a genuine factual dispute about whether the healthy-looking birds posed any meaningful risk to other birds or humans at the time they were seized,” Gould wrote in the ruling.

However, the court rejected most of the other claims Recchia made in his lawsuit against the city, agreeing with the lower court’s ruling. The judges wrote that there’s a "a strong general governmental interest in being able to seize animals that may be in imminent danger of harm due to their living conditions … or may otherwise threaten public safety without first needing to have a hearing on the subject.”

As for the crow and seagull?

They were given to wildlife rescue groups, court records said.

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