Homeless Man Can Sue L.A. for Euthanizing His Pigeons

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on May 08, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Martino Recchia was homeless, living on the streets of Los Angeles, and caring for 20 birds when animal control officers showed up at his tent to investigate complaints about the animals in 2011. Officers found 18 pigeons, a crow, and a seagull in boxes and cages in his home on a sidewalk, all in various states of health, according to reports.

The city decided to seize all of the animals, giving Recchia 10 days to request a hearing to regain custody. But before that deadline was up, a city veterinarian euthanized all the pigeons, claiming they could've been carrying pathogens without ever testing their blood. Recchia sued the city, and his case was dismissed by a lower court. But a federal appeals court revived some his claims, saying his constitutional rights might've been violated.

On a Wing and a Prayer

The health (or lack thereof) of the birds in Recchia's care is a matter of debate. The Sacramento Bee reports that the containers housing the animals were covered in feces, the birds didn't have room to fly around, and some were "in dire physical condition":

"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 claims he rescued the ailing pigeons, and the birds were in "the same or better condition than that in which he had found them." Additionally, animal control officers found food and water in all of the birds' containers. Beyond the sickly-looking birds, eight of the pigeons were outwardly healthy. The city euthanized all of the pigeons, and sent the crow and seagull to wildlife rescue groups.

Unconstitutional Confiscation

Also up for debate is whether Los Angeles' decision to seize and euthanize the healthy-looking birds prior to the ten-day deadline violated Recchia's Fourth Amendment rights. "[T]here is a genuine factual dispute," the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, "about whether the healthy-looking birds posed any meaningful risk to other birds or humans at the time they were seized."

The court, however, dismissed Recchia's claims regarding the sick birds, saying there's "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."

Therefore, Recchia's lawsuit against L.A., at least with regards to eight of his lost pigeons, has been given another life.

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