Ruff Justice

Originally appeared in the June 2000 issue of the ABA Journal.

Harmless Error - A Truly Minority View on the Law

Ruff Justice


In San Francisco, they hold Dog Court. This is where troubled dogs end up when they choose the wrong path in life, such as the one directly behind a fleeing postal worker.

Both sides show up and present their stories. Sometimes they bring witnesses and even lawyers. In half the cases, the dogs are ordered leashed or muzzled. Difficult cases are referred to pet shrinks. One dog was put on Prozac because, in the judge’s words, “he was so high-strung.”

What’s it like inside the canine justice system? The ABA Journal offers this exclusive firsthand account from Rex (not his real name), a retriever charged with vandalizing public property.

Day 1/Holding cell

Nervous. Agitated. Don’t like the way that German Shepard is wagging his tail at me. And the mutt with the scabs and one ear looks mean. Said he works in the automobile security industry. I don’t belong in here with them. They’re animals!

I’m innocent. Just in the wrong place at the wrong time—standing next to a fire hydrant getting ready for a little jog around the neighborhood, stretching my left rear quadricep.

Starving. Nothing to eat since I’ve been here except biscuits and water. Come to think of it, that’s all I get at home. That really bites.

Day 2/Interrogation

Right to remain silent? What kind of a right is that? Howl at 110 decibels. Now that’s a right …

Stop! Quit hounding me. How many times is he going to say, “Did you do it, boy?” and I say “Woof, woof,” before he realizes that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

Day 3/Line-up

Some line-up. A chihuahua, alley cat and an unemployed performance artist named Stefan. So much for due process. But it doesn’t matter. I’m home free. No eyewitnesses except that mangy hound — Elrod! What’s he doing here? And with them. He must have rolled over.

Time to stay calm. Stop panting and lick that slobber off your lip like it’s the most natural thing in the world. They’re bringing him over. Be cool, Elrod. We’ve never met. We’ve never met. Elrod, stop licking my face. No sniffing. Elrod! Maybe I can still cop a plea.

Day 4/Sentencing

The judge is reading my rap sheet. It sounds bad, but I could explain everything if he would just listen, and if I could talk. For example, all those citations for chasing cars never would have happened if my owner would have just bothered to mention he was coming back. Thanks for the raging abandonment complex, master.

As for the aggravated assault against the cable guy, I am 100 percent blameless. “Guard the house, Rex.” That’s what the man said. I just do what I’m told. It’s not like he ever gave me a list or anything. Never said, “Bite intruders unless they’re wearing a patch that says they work for a regulated utility.” If the dude had been a burglar, I’d be a hero. Probably get my picture in the paper.

Uh oh, it’s sentencing time. Fourteen years in the backyard! No way. I’ll never survive captivity. Well, I have all my life, but still. Man, those better be dog years.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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