If you have ever been attacked, bitten or chased by a ferocious dog, you know how terrifying it is.
It’s no less frightening if the dog happens to work for police. Encounters with K-9 police dogs can result in extensive injuries and lasting trauma. Even death.
If a K-9 police dog has mauled you, you might have a legal case. Our California Civil Rights Lawyers represent victims of all types of police abuse, including police abuse involving dogs. We know how to negotiate with prosecutors and talk to juries.
This article is a short introduction to the law surrounding police dog abuse. If you have questions after reading it, we invite you to contact our California Civil Rights Lawyers for a consultation.
- 1. When are police allowed to use dogs against a suspect?
- 2. When are police dogs considered excessive force?
- 3. What about dog bite statutes?
- 4. Can I bring a lawsuit?
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Police can use dogs – known as K-9 units – to help apprehend or subdue suspects who are resisting arrest or otherwise posing a danger.
Police dog force is excessive when the nature and quality of the intrusion (the attack and resulting injury) are not justified by the governmental interest at stake (the urgency of making the arrest).
Deadly force by police – whether by guns or K-9 dogs – is excessive unless reasonably necessary under the circumstances. Police are never allowed to use deadly force against a fleeing suspect who poses no danger to anyone.2
Ten questions a judge or jury might ask in evaluating the reasonableness of police dog force are:
- What kind of crime was the suspect being arrested for?
- Was the suspect an immediate danger to himself or others?
- Was the suspect just hiding or actively fleeing?
- Did the police issue a warning before siccing the dog on the suspect?
- Did the suspect surrender quickly, or did they harass, provoke or fight with the dog?
- Did the dog bite the suspect once or multiple times, and how long was the bite(s)?
- What kind of injuries did the suspect sustain from the dog?
- Was the dog out of control, or did it obey police commands?
- How likely was it that the police could use less violent means to apprehend the suspect?
- Did the police act with malice?3
Most states have dog bite statutes that make dog owners liable for injuries caused by their pets. Though these dog bite statutes usually do not apply to law enforcement agencies unless:
- their K-9 dog hurt an innocent bystander or a crime victim; or
- the police department did not adopt a properly written K-9 police dog use policy.4
Note that every state has a statute that makes it a crime for people to injure police dogs. In California for example, seriously harming a K-9 dog “willfully, maliciously and with no legal justification” is a felony carrying up to three years in prison and/or $2,000 in fines.5
If a K-9 police dog bites or mauls you, you might be able to bring a case for damages under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 for violation of your Fourth Amendment rights. Section 1983 is the federal civil rights statute that lets you sue the police in certain cases involving excessive force.6
Police dog victims do not win in every case, but large damages are possible. Four men who were bitten by the Irvington, New Jersey police dog, Bullet, ultimately settled for $115,000. In Los Angeles, police dog bites were so plentiful that the City Council set aside $2.6 million to settle claims.7
Our California Civil Rights Lawyers can discuss your case with you and explain your best options for recovery.
- See, for example, Graham v. Connor (1989) 490 U.S. 386 (“Determining whether the force used to effect a particular seizure is “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment requires a careful balancing of ‘the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests’ against the countervailing governmental interests at stake. Our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has long recognized that the right to make an arrest or investigatory stop necessarily carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat thereof to effect it…. its proper application requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” Id at 396). See also Miller v. Clark County (9th Cir. 2003) 340 F.3d 959.
- Same. See also Tennessee v. Garner (1985) 471 U.S. 1, 12 [unarmed teenage burglary suspect shot in back and killed while fleeing over fence] (“The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable. It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape. Where the suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others, the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not justify the use of deadly force to do so. It is no doubt unfortunate when a suspect who is in sight escapes, but the fact that the police arrive a little late or are a little slower afoot does not always justify killing the suspect. A police officer may not seize an unarmed, nondangerous suspect by shooting him dead. The Tennessee statute is unconstitutional insofar as it authorizes the use of deadly force against such fleeing suspects. It is not, however, unconstitutional on its face. Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force. Thus, if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm, deadly force may be used if necessary to prevent escape, and if, where feasible, some warning has been given. As applied in such circumstances, the Tennessee statute would pass constitutional muster.”) And see Chew v. Gates (9th Cir., 1994) 27 F.3d 1432 Judge Norris’ concurrence (“If the use of the LAPD dogs constitutes the use of deadly force, Garner would stand in the way of defendants’ motion for summary judgment because the LAPD canine policy would be unconstitutional, as the Tennessee statute was unconstitutional, for permitting the use of deadly force to prevent the escape of felony suspects who do not pose `a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”)
- See also Mendoza v. Block (9th Cir. 1994) 27 F.3d 1357 [no constitutional violation where police dog bit hiding bank robbery suspect after warnings] (“We do not believe that a more particularized expression of the law is necessary for law enforcement officials using police dogs to understand that under some circumstances the use of such a “weapon” might become unlawful. For example, no particularized case law is necessary for a deputy to know that excessive force has been used when a deputy sics a canine on a handcuffed arrestee who has fully surrendered and is completely under control. An officer is not entitled to qualified immunity on the grounds that the law is not clearly established every time a novel method is used to inflict injury.”)
- See, for example, California Civil Code Section 3342. “(a) The owner of any dog is liable for the damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner’ s knowledge of such viciousness. A person is lawfully upon the private property of such owner within the meaning of this section when he is on such property in the performance of any duty imposed upon him by the laws of this state or by the laws or postal regulations of the United States, or when he is on such property upon the invitation, express or implied, of the owner. (b) Nothing in this section shall authorize the bringing of an action pursuant to subdivision (a) against any governmental agency using a dog in military or police work if the bite or bites occurred while the dog was defending itself from an annoying, harassing, or provoking act, or assisting an employee of the agency in any of the following: (1) In the apprehension or holding of a suspect where the employee has a reasonable suspicion of the suspect’s involvement in criminal activity. (2) In the investigation of a crime or possible crime. (3) In the execution of a warrant. (4) In the defense of a peace officer or another person. (c) Subdivision (b) shall not apply in any case where the victim of the bite or bites was not a party to, nor a participant in, nor suspected to be a party to or a participant in, the act or acts that prompted the use of the dog in the military or police work. (d) Subdivision (b) shall apply only where a governmental agency using a dog in military or police work has adopted a written policy on the necessary and appropriate use of a dog for the police or military work enumerated in subdivision (b).” City of Huntington Beach v. City of Westminster (1997) 57 Cal.App.4th 220 [both cities mush share equally in $250,000 settlement deriving from a police dog bite of a robbery victim where trial court found neither city negligent]
- See California Penal Code Section 600. (“(a) Any person who willfully and maliciously and with no legal justification strikes, beats, kicks, cuts, stabs, shoots with a firearm, administers any poison or other harmful or stupefying substance to, or throws, hurls, or projects at, or places any rock, object, or other substance which is used in such a manner as to be capable of producing injury and likely to produce injury, on or in the path of, any horse being used by, or any dog under the supervision of, any peace officer in the discharge or attempted discharge of his or her duties, is guilty of a public offense. If the injury inflicted is a serious injury, as defined in subdivision (c), the person shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for 16 months, two or three years, or in a county jail for not exceeding one year, or by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars ($2,000), or by both a fine and imprisonment. If the injury inflicted is not a serious injury, the person shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for not exceeding one year, or by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both a fine and imprisonment. (b) Any person who willfully and maliciously and with no legal justification interferes with or obstructs any horse or dog being used by any peace officer in the discharge or attempted discharge of his or her duties by frightening, teasing, agitating, harassing, or hindering the horse or dog shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for not exceeding one year, or by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both a fine and imprisonment. (c) Any person who, in violation of this section, and with intent to inflict such injury or death, personally causes the death, destruction, or serious physical injury including bone fracture, loss or impairment of function of any bodily member, wounds requiring extensive suturing, or serious crippling, of any horse or dog, shall, upon conviction of a felony under this section, in addition and consecutive to the punishment prescribed for the felony, be punished by an additional term of imprisonment in the state prison for one year. (d) Any person who, in violation of this section, and with the ntent to inflict such injury, personally causes great bodily injury, as defined in Section 12022.7, to any person not an accomplice, shall, upon conviction of a felony under this section, in addition and consecutive to the punishment prescribed for the felony, be punished by an additional term of imprisonment in the state prison for two years unless the conduct described in this subdivision is an element of any other offense of which the person is convicted or receives an enhancement under Section 12022.7. (e) In any case in which a defendant is convicted of a violation of this section, the defendant shall be ordered to make restitution to the agency owning the animal and employing the peace officer for any veterinary bills, replacement costs of the animal if it is disabled or killed, and the salary of the peace officer for the period of time his or her services are lost to the agency.”). See also California Penal Code Section 399.5.
- 42 U.S.C. 1983 (“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.”)
- Margaret McHugh, Irvington settles lawsuit with 4 alleged victims of police-dog attacks, NJ.com (Nov. 27, 2008). See also Medina v. City of Culver City (9th Cir. 1996) 100 F.3d 963, UNPUBLISHED OPINION [officer found liable for $95,000 after bench trial in which unreasonable release of police dog on suspect high on PCP precipitated ultimate shooting death of suspect]