California Penal Code 399 PC, California's failure to control a dangerous animal law, sets forth specific criminal penalties for people who own or control dangerous animals (usually dogs) in the following situation:
- The owner willfully lets the animal run free or doesn't use ordinary care in keeping it; and
- As a result, another person is killed or suffers serious bodily injury.1
And if you have a potentially dangerous animal that has not actually injured anyone, angry neighbors may try to get you charged with Penal Code 372/373a PC creating a public nuisance.
(Ironically, under California Health & Safety Code 122335, it is a crime to tether a dog for a long period of time--which can put some pet owners in a bind and give them no choice but to let their dog run free.)
The legal definition of failing to control a dangerous animal
The legal definition of the crime of failing to control a mischievous animal consists of the following “elements of the crime”:
- You owned, or had custody or control of, a dangerous animal;
- You knew that the animal was dangerous;
- You willfully (that is, willingly or on purpose) allowed the animal to run free or else failed to use ordinary care in keeping the animal;
- The animal killed or caused serious bodily injury to another person; and
- The victim took all the reasonable precautions that an ordinary person would have taken in the same situation (unless the victim was under the age of 5, or was for any other reason incapable of taking reasonable precautions).2
An animal is only considered “dangerous” if it is vicious or prone to hurting people willfully. All wild animals are considered dangerous, but a domesticated animal is only dangerous if its individual behavior is vicious.3
Example: Jen keeps several horses. The fence around the horses' corral is in bad condition, and they sometimes escape and wander around the rural neighborhood where she lives.
One night one of her horses gets loose and wanders onto the road. Ezra is driving on the road. His car hits the horse, and the collision kills him instantly.
Jen is not guilty of PC 399 failing to a control a dangerous animal. The fact that her horse had a tendency to wander, including onto streets where it could cause collisions, did not make it “dangerous.”4
Example: Luis keeps a chimpanzee as a pet. He has raised it since it was a baby. The chimp has never shown any signs of aggression toward humans.
One day while the mail carrier is delivering mail, the chimp runs out of the house and attacks him. The mail carrier ends up with severe lacerations and a broken arm.
Luis may be guilty of failing to control a dangerous animal even though his chimp never behaved viciously before. This is because all wild animals are considered “dangerous.”
“Ordinary care” in keeping an animal means reasonable care to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm to someone else. You fail to use ordinary care when you do something a reasonably careful person would not have done in the same situation.5
“Serious bodily injury” does not mean exactly the same thing as “great bodily injury.” Serious bodily injury means a serious impairment of physical condition. This can include but is not limited to:
- Loss of consciousness;
- Bone fracture;
- Protracted loss or impairment of function of any bodily member or organ;
- A wound requiring extensive suturing; and
- Serious disfigurement.6
Example: Todd has a pet pit bull named Blue. Blue has attacked people and other dogs in the past, and local authorities have told Todd that he should keep Blue indoors or in a secure enclosure at all times.
One day Todd chains Blue up in his yard. Blue breaks free of his collar and runs into the yard of Todd's 85-year-old neighbor Steve. Blue attacks Steve's dog, and Steve hits Blue with a cane. Blue then bites Steve on the leg.
The wound on Steve's leg requires stitches and, because of Steve's advanced age, close observation in the hospital for several days. It takes Steve a few months to recover completely—but the wound does eventually he9al with no scarring.
Todd is guilty of failing to control a dangerous animal. Given his knowledge of Blue's vicious tendencies, leaving Blue chained outside was a failure to use ordinary care.
Also, Steve's injuries count as “serious bodily injury” because of the long recovery time and potential for complications for someone of his age.7
Penalties for failing to control a dangerous dog/animal
If the victim of a violation of California Penal Code 399 PC only suffers serious bodily injury, then the crime is what is known as a “wobbler” in California law. A “wobbler” may be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, at the prosecutor's discretion.8
But if the victim is killed, then failing to control a dangerous animal is always a California felony.9
The potential penalties for failure to control an animal as a California misdemeanor are:
- Misdemeanor (summary) probation;
- Up to six (6) months in county jail; and/or
- A fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000).10
The potential penalties for failing to control a dangerous animal as a California felony are:
- Felony (formal) probation;
- Sixteen (16) months, two (2) years or three (3) years in California state prison; and/or
- A fine of up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000).11
Legal defenses against PC 399 charges
Our California criminal defense attorneys are familiar with the common legal defenses that are often helpful for defendants facing charges of failing to control their dangerous pets.
According to Pomona criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse12:
“Failure to control your dangerous dog or animal is not what we call a ‘strict liability offense.' This means that you are not guilty just because you owned an animal that killed or injured someone. The prosecutor needs to be able to prove both that you knew the animal was dangerous and that you behaved unreasonably in the way you restrained the animal.”
This means that defendants can often beat these charges by arguing that they didn't know the animal was dangerous, or that they did not fail to use ordinary care with respect to the animal.
Another common legal defense is that the victim did not take reasonable precautions in his/her dealings with the animal (but note that this defense applies only if the victim was 5 or older).13
Call us for help…
For questions about the crime of Penal Code 399 PC failing to control a dangerous dog/animal, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
For more information on Nevada laws on dangerous or vicious dogs, please see our page on Nevada laws on dangerous or vicious dogs.
1 Penal Code 399 PC – Mischievous animal causing death or serious bodily injury; negligence of owner or person having custody or control; punishment. (“(a) If any person 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. (b) If any person 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, causes serious bodily injury to 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 misdemeanor or a felony.”)
2 Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (“CALCRIM”) 2950 – Failing to Maintain Control of a Dangerous Animal (Pen. Code, § 399). (“The defendant is charged [in Count ] with causing (injury/death) by failing to maintain control of a dangerous animal [in violation of Penal Code section 399]. To prove that the defendant is guilty of this crime, the People must prove that: 1 The defendant (owned/ [or] had custody or control of) a dangerous animal; 2 The defendant knew that the animal was dangerous; <Alternative 3A—allowed to run free> [3 The defendant willfully allowed the animal to run free;] <Alternative 3B—failed to use ordinary care> [3 The defendant failed to use ordinary care in keeping the animal;] [AND] 4 The animal (killed/caused serious bodily injury to) <insert name of person allegedly attacked> while the defendant (allowed it to run free/failed to use ordinary care in keeping it)(;/.) <Give element 5 unless alleged victim not capable of taking precautions; see Bench Notes.> [AND 5 <insert name of person allegedly attacked> took all the precautions that a reasonable person would have taken in the same situation.] [If the People have proved that <insert name of person allegedly attacked> was (under the age of five years/incapable of taking reasonable precautions because <insert reason for incapacity>), then the People do not need to prove item 5 and you do not have to find that (he/she) took all the precautions that a reasonable person would have taken in the same situation.] [Someone commits an act willfully when he or she does it willingly or on purpose. It is not required that he or she intend to break the law, hurt someone else, or gain any advantage.]”)
3 Sea Horse Ranch, Inc. v. Superior Court (1994) 24 Cal.App.4th 446, 460-61. (“'Mischievous propensities' of an animal are its tendencies to bite, kick, gore, etc., not its tendencies to walk on a highway.” (Ibid.) With regard to tort liability for keeping mischievous animals, most jurisdictions follow the rule that “... animals which have become domesticated by man, such as horses, cows, dogs, et cetera[,] ... are regarded as inherently safe.” (Rolen v. Maryland Casualty Company (La.Ct.App. 1970) 240 So.2d 42, 44, overruled on other grounds, Holland v. Buckley (La. 1974) 305 So.2d 113, 114, 117.) Wild animals are considered inherently dangerous; a domesticated animal is only classified as mischievious if its individual behavior demonstrates viciousness. (Ibid.; Swain v. Tillett (1967) 269 N.C. 46 [152 S.E.2d 297, 301]; see generally Annot., Owner's or Keeper's Liability for Personal Injury or Death Inflicted by Wild Animal, 21 A.L.R.3d 603, 627-628.) The tendency of livestock to roam or stray if not contained is well known. This is a natural or inherent trait, not a mischievous one.”)
4 Based on the facts of the same.
5 CALCRIM 2950 – Failing to Maintain Control of a Dangerous Animal (Pen. Code, § 399). (“[Using ordinary care means using reasonable care to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm to someone else. A person fails to use ordinary care if he or she (does something that a reasonably careful person would not do in the same situation/ [or] fails to do something that a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation).]”)
6 CALCRIM 2950 – Failing to Maintain Control of a Dangerous Animal (Pen. Code, § 399). (“[A serious bodily injury means a serious impairment of physical condition. Such an injury may include[, but is not limited to]: (loss of consciousness/ concussion/ bone fracture/ protracted loss or impairment of function of any bodily member or organ/ a wound requiring extensive suturing/ [and] serious disfigurement).]”)
7 Based on the facts of People v. Flores (2013) 216 Cal.App.4th 251.
8 Penal Code 399 PC – Mischievous animal causing death or serious bodily injury; negligence of owner or person having custody or control; punishment, endnote 1 above.
10 Penal Code 19 PC – Punishment for misdemeanor [including misdemeanor failing to control a dangerous animal]; punishment not otherwise prescribed. (“Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a misdemeanor is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both.”)
11 Penal Code 18 PC – Punishment for felony not otherwise prescribed [including felony failure to control dangerous dogs or animals]; alternate sentence to county jail. (“(a) Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a felony is punishable by imprisonment for 16 months, or two or three years in the state prison unless the offense is punishable pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.”)
12 Pomona criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse is the founder and Managing Attorney of Shouse Law Group. He served five years in the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office, prosecuting more than 60 criminal trials with an astonishing 96% success rate in felony jury trials to verdict. Mr. Shouse has experience with everything from minor DUI cases to failure to control a dangerous animal charges to murder and gang offenses.
13 See CALCRIM 2950 – Failing to Maintain Control of a Dangerous Animal (Pen. Code, § 399), endnote 2 above.