9th Circuit OKs civil rights case over death of 2 dogs shot during execution of search warrant

A divided federal appeals court panel has reversed a summary judgment in favor of police in a civil rights case over two pet dogs shot to death during the execution of a search warrant at the plaintiff's home in a Las Vegas suburb.

Reviewing the facts alleged by Louisa Thurston in the manner most favorable to the plaintiff in the Section 1983 case, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that material issues of fact precluded summary judgment concerning alleged violations of the Fourth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. For example, it was not clear whether the City of North Las Vegas Police Department should have had an animal control officer on hand and why there was a 20-minute delay after the officers' arrival before the dogs were shot to death, an appellate panel said in a 2-1 Thursday opinion (PDF).

It is marked "not for publication" and hence has limited value as precedent. But it explains the majority's thinking in refusing to OK the trial judge's finding that qualified immunity applied to the department and individual officers involved. The 9th Circuit panel did agree with the trial judge that the city itself could not be held liable, since there was "no evidence that the officers shot Thurston's dogs pursuant to a formal governmental policy or long-standing practice which constitutes the standard operating procedure of the city."

The slain dogs were a 70-pound pit bull and a 140-pound mastiff, according to the opinion. The search warrant was executed by a SWAT team on Thurston's husband, Michael Martin, who was wanted on armed robbery charges.

A dissenting judge said he would have affirmed because there was no evidence that the police knew the dogs, who appeared to be confined in the fenced back yard, could get in the house where officers said they acted aggressively.

Thurston told the Las Vegas Review-Journal her dogs were friendly and she wanted to pursue the case to protect other families from going through what she did.

"Why did they do it?" she said of the police officers who, she insisted, saw the big dogs "wiggling their tails" when the SWAT team arrived. "None of them were bitten. ... I begged with them not to hurt my dogs."

Three small dogs that Thurston also owned were not harmed by police, the newspaper notes.

State Sen. David Parks plans to introduce a bill next year that would provide for police to be trained in dog behavior to try to avoid situations in which pets are shot.

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