California law makes animal owners generally responsible for any damage or injury their animals cause, and victims can file personal injury lawsuits against pet owners for such injuries.
However, if you have a dog or other animal you reasonably know to be dangerous, and someone is hurt or killed because you failed to control it, it's not just a civil matter; it's a crime.
Under Penal Code 399 PC, if you are convicted of failing to control a dangerous dog or animal, you could face up to 3 years in prison.
Simply put, if you own or keep a dangerous animal and fail to take steps to control it, and someone is seriously injured or killed or seriously injured as a result, you could face misdemeanor or felony criminal charges (wobbler).
PC 399 says, “(a) If anyone owning or having custody or control of a mischievous animal, knowing its propensities, willfully suffers it to go at large, or keeps it without ordinary care, and the animal, while so at large, or while not kept with ordinary care, kills any human being who has taken all the precautions that the circumstances permitted, or which a reasonable person would ordinarily take in the same situation, is guilty of a felony crime.”
Subsection (b) covers a situation where someone's animal causes serious bodily injury to any human being who has taken all the precautions that the circumstances permitted or a reasonable person would ordinarily take.
An animal is considered dangerous if it's a domesticated animal that is vicious or prone to willfully hurting people. It also includes wild animals. Let's review this state law in more detail below.
Overview of PC 399
Under PC 399, you are considered guilty of a crime if you have custody or control of a dangerous animal ("mischievous animal," according to the law's phrasing), and in failing to control it reasonably, the animal causes serious bodily injury or death to someone.
For prosecutors to convict you of this crime, they must prove the following four elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
- You had custody or control of an animal;
- You knew the animal was dangerous;
- You either willfully allowed the animal to run free or failed to exercise ordinary care in controlling it; and
- The animal caused someone serious bodily injury or death as a result.
A "dangerous" animal under California law is either (a) considered a wild animal or (b) a domesticated animal that has been shown to have vicious tendencies.
This is important because even if the animal showed no signs of aggressive behavior, you could still be convicted if the animal was recognized as a "wild" animal under California law.
Examples of domesticated animals in California include commonly owned pets such as cats and dogs and livestock like horses and cattle.
Examples of animals deemed to be wild include "big cats" (e.g., lions, tigers, leopards), wolves, chimpanzees, etc.
"Ordinary care" refers to taking reasonable measures to ensure a dangerous animal cannot harm anyone.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: Jason has a wolf for a pet and keeps it secure in a spacious fenced-in dog run on his farm. The wolf appears tame and, to Jason's knowledge, has never attacked anyone.
Jason accidentally leaves the gate to the dog run ajar. The wolf gets out and attacks and kills a small child playing in the yard on a nearby farm.
Jason can be charged under PC 399 because even though he had no reason to expect the wolf to attack someone, wolves are considered wild and, therefore, dangerous by default under California law.
EXAMPLE 2: Angie keeps a Rottweiler dog as a pet and watchdog. Under normal circumstances, the dog behaves well with humans. One night, a burglar breaks into Angie's home, and the Rottweiler attacks him, severely injuring his leg.
Angie would NOT be guilty under PC 399 because the would-be burglar was invading her home, and keeping the dog inside is considered exercising ordinary care.
EXAMPLE 3: Dave keeps a pit bull in his backyard. He knows the dog has a history of aggression, but he carelessly leaves the gate open. A neighbor notices the dog roaming free in the neighborhood and calls animal control.
The pit bull is captured without incident. While Dave's actions were reckless, he cannot be charged under PC 399 because no human was hurt or killed by the dog running loose.
What Are the Related Crimes for PC 399?
There are several related offenses for PC 399 failing to control a dangerous dog or animal, including the following:
- Penal Code 399.5 PC – owning dogs trained to fight;
- Penal Code 597 PC – animal cruelty;
- Penal Code 597.5 PC – dogfighting;
- Penal Code 192(b) PC – involuntary manslaughter.
What Are the Penalties for PC 399?
Depending on the damage caused to the victim, violations of PC 399 may be charged either as a misdemeanor or a felony. If the dangerous animal kills a victim, it is always charged as a felony.
If the animal injures a victim, it is a "wobbler," meaning it may be charged either as a misdemeanor or a felony. The penalties could include the following:
- If you're convicted of a misdemeanor, you could face up to six months in jail and up to $1000 in fines.
- If convicted of a felony, you could face up to 3 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.
What Are the Defenses Against PC 399?
Since the prosecution must prove all four elements of PC 399 listed above to procure a conviction, the most common defenses have to do with refuting one or more of these elements. Our California criminal defense attorneys will discuss them below.
Perhaps we can argue that you were not the animal's owner or custodian. In other words, you had no legal responsibility for the animal.
Perhaps we can argue that you were unaware that the animal was dangerous. This defense does not apply to animals already deemed wild—only to domesticated animals with no prior history of viciousness.
Perhaps we can argue that you exercised ordinary care in controlling the animal. In other words, you did everything a person could ordinarily be expected to do to restrain a dangerous animal.
Perhaps we can argue that you gave a warning concerning the animal, and the victim failed to heed the warning. The courts could show leniency if you made a reasonable effort to keep the victim safe by warning them against the animal.
If the person fails to take reasonable precautions, you may avoid conviction. Of note is that this defense does not apply if the victim was under the age of 5 or was otherwise unable to take precautions.
Perhaps we can negotiate with the prosecutor for reduced charges or persuade them not to file formal criminal charges in the first place, called a “DA reject.”
You can contact us for a case consultation by phone or through the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.