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Homeless man gets another chance to sue L.A. for euthanizing his birds

Homeless man gets another chance to sue L.A. for euthanizing his birds
In 2011, animal control officers confiscated 18 pigeons, a crow and a seagull that Martino Recchia kept in boxes and cages at his campsite. He requested a hearing, but the city already had euthanized the birds. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

A homeless Los Angeles man won a second chance Tuesday to hold the city liable for euthanizing his pet birds.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals revived a lawsuit by Martino Recchia over the fate of 18 pigeons, a crow and a seagull he kept in boxes and cages in his home on a sidewalk.

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An animal control officer investigated Recchia's campsite in late 2011 in response to complaints about a homeless man with birds. Recchia agreed to allow the officer to look into his birds' boxes and cages, the court said.

All the birds had food and water, but their containers were covered in feces and too small to allow the animals to fly around; the newspaper lining on the bottom of the containers was wet, the court said.

Many of the birds were deformed, distressed and diseased, the court said, although eight pigeons appeared to be healthy.

Two animal control officers impounded the birds, leading to what one officer said was a physical confrontation with Recchia. The LAPD was called, and officers stayed Recchia until all his birds could be hauled away.

The animal control officers gave Recchia a written notice informing him he had 10 days to request a hearing.

Recchia requested the hearing four days later, but it was too late. All of the pigeons had been euthanized, and the crow and gull had been sent to wildlife rescue groups.

A city veterinarian who examined the birds the day after they were impounded determined that many of the pigeons were diseased and even the healthy-looking ones probably carried pathogens. The birds' blood was not tested.

Recchia sued the animal control officers and the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services, but a district court ruled in favor of the city. Recchia appealed.

Tuesday's 9th Circuit ruling was largely favorable to the city, agreeing with the trial court that many of Recchia's claims had to be rejected.

"There is a strong general governmental interest in being able to seize animals that may be in imminent danger of harm due to their living conditions, may carry pathogens harmful to humans or other animals, or may otherwise threaten public safety without first needing to have a hearing on the subject," Judge Ronald M. Gould, a Clinton appointee, wrote for the court.

Still, the panel decided, Recchia should be given a chance to show that the seizure of the eight healthy-looking birds without a warrant violated his constitutional rights.

"There is a genuine factual dispute about whether the healthy-looking birds posed any meaningful risk to other birds or humans at the time they were seized," Gould wrote.

Twitter: @mauradolan

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