Several dog owners sued the City of Council Bluffs, Iowa, challenging the constitutionality of an ordinance prohibiting pit bull dogs, and lost.

The City enacted an ordinance in 2005 which prohibited “any person to own, possess, keep, exercise control over, maintain, harbor, transport or sell within the City of Council Bluffs, Iowa any pit bull. A “pit bull” is defined as “Any dog that is an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier or any dog displaying a majority of physical traits of any one or more of the above breeds (more so than any other breed), or any dog exhibiting those distinguishing characteristics which substantially conform to the standards established by the American Kennel Club or United Kennel Club for any of the above breeds”.

The dog owners claimed the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague and violated their right to substantive due process, equal protection and procedural due process. They led expert evidence from canine behaviour experts alleging that, according to the dog owners, pit bull type dogs are no more or less dangerous than other breeds and neither the breed nor physical characteristics are predictive of a dog’s aggressiveness or propensity to bite. They also complained about the way of identifying pit bulls. The City believed that banning pit bulls would promote the health and safety of their citizens.  After reports that a disproportionate number of dog bites were attributed to pit bulls, the City exercised its police power to regulate the ownership of dogs. Pit bulls accounted for a disproportionate number of dog bites during 2003 and 2004. After the banning, the number of reported dog bites declined and remained 25% lower than in the years before the ordinance.

The lower court and appeal court held that the pit bull ordinance had the required rational relationship to the health, safety, and public welfare interests of the City and survived a test of rationality.

A similar law in South Africa would be tested under the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act as to whether it was rational and reasonable in relation to its purpose. The outcome of the case would depend on the evidence led.

Nelson & Others v The City Council of Bluff, Iowa: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, case number 21-3794 (10 November 2022)