Lawsuit against Kent County SPCA remains in court

GEORGETOWN — A Superior Court judge on Wednesday opted not to dismiss much of a couple’s complaint alleging false arrest connected to their dog’s seizure after it reportedly attacked and injured another canine in 2015.

John and Nancy Smith earlier filed an 18-page lawsuit against the Kent County Society for the Prevention of Animals and officers also claiming an unconstitutional search warrant, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution.

In a 20-page decision, Judge E. Scott Bradley determined that the Kent County SPCA had no authority to obtain a search warrant to take the Smith’s dog Millie from them on March 20, 2015. The dog was later returned to the couple.

The Smiths “argue that they have federal and state constitutional protections against a warrantless search of their home and seizure of their property,” Judge Bradley noted.

“The Defendants have not put forth any authority challenging the Smiths’ argument …”

Criminal charges filed by the SPCA against Mr. Smith were eventually dismissed. Ms. Smith pleaded guilty to one count of having a dog at large.

The Smiths claimed they paid $3,913.50 in lawyers fees and $479.73 in veterinarian bills while addressing the matter, and are seeking damages for their arrest and criminal prosecution. The SPCA was under contract by Sussex County Council to provide animal services at the time.

Upon seizure, the Smiths alleged that their dog was not examined with 72 hours or vaccinated properly, and their own veterinarian was denied opportunity to examine Millie.

“A reasonable jury could well conclude that the manner and process in which Millie was seized and treated, and the subsequent arrest of Mr. Smith was sufficiently outrageous conduct by defendants … to support a claim for intentional inflict emotional distress.

“ … where reasonable minds may differ, the Court will leave the determination to the jury.”

The judge questioned whether an SPCA officer had authority to obtain an arrest warrant and “the record is lacking any indicia of evidence that Mr. Smith hindered prosecution.”

Five elements were present to at least argue that malicious prosecution had occurred, which a jury would eventually decide on, Judge Bradley concluded.

Also the judge noted that “[j]ust because a police officer may have probable cause to seek an arrest does not provide Defendants with the same right or give them probable cause to do something they are not statutorily permitted to engage in.

“Additionally, they are not afforded the same protections as police officers. A possible showing could be made that Mr. Smith was not hindering prosecution but simply exercising his constitutional rights to not cooperate in the Defendants’ investigation, which does not equal probable cause.”

The Smiths entered not guilty pleas on April 3, 2015, after turning themselves in at Justice of the Peace Court, and were subsequently “fingerprinted, processed, and photographed” by an SPCA officer at Delaware State Police Troop 4, according to the order.

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