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Appeals Court Takes Immunity Away From Cop Who Entered A House Without A Warrant And Killed The Family Dog

from the as-it-should dept

Qualified immunity has been stretched to cover a wide variety of rights violations, law enforcement misconduct, and excessive force deployments. Every so often, a federal court will refuse to extend this courtesy to sued officers, but these decisions are relative rarities.

Every so often, officers engage in such egregious violations that no court is willing to give them a pass on their bad behavior. This case [PDF], handled by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, is one of those. It details a case where officers went out to put someone in protective custody and ended up killing some random person's dog. In between, officers went to the wrong address and entered a house without a warrant. Here's how it started:

On November 20, 2014, a probate judge had ordered a man named Donte Cox to report to Allegiance Health Hospital, as he had failed to pick up his prescribed medication. If Cox did not appear at Allegiance Health, the order stated that police officers would take Cox into protective custody and transport him to the hospital. When Cox failed to appear, the Jackson Police Department dispatched Officers Matthew Peters and Lewis Costley to look for Cox at several addresses in Jackson, including 511 South Blackstone Street and 513 South Blackstone Street. Cox did not live at 513 South Blackstone Street in 2014, and it is unclear from the record whether Cox had ever lived at either Blackstone address.

The info the officers had was, at best, terrible. It gave them the power to approach a bunch of different residences but no knowledge whatsoever about what they were expected to find… other than someone who hadn't picked up a prescription.

So, the two officers approached the first set of addresses, located across from each other. Both addresses were clearly marked on the exterior doors which made it clear these were two different units. Officer Costley did his job correctly.

Costley went to the door labeled “511,” and Peters went to the door labeled “513.” Costley knocked on the door at 511 Blackstone, waited, and did not receive a response, so he did not enter the residence.

Officer Peters did not.

Peters, in contrast, approached the door at 513 Blackstone and walked inside without knocking or ringing the doorbell.

And he admitted all of this while testifying:

Peters admits he had no search warrant, no consent to enter the home, and no exigent circumstances that would have permitted him to enter the home absent a warrant or consent.

Instead, he tried to excuse his behavior by claiming he had no idea what address numbers on front doors signify.

Peters contends that the front screen door was slightly ajar and there was no solid door behind the screen door, so he presumed that the door led to a common front entry for multiple apartments, despite his acknowledgement that only one house number— 513—was listed next to the door.

The people inside 513 knew it was not a "common front entry." So, they had no idea who was letting themselves into their residence. Their dog noticed the intruder, who did not identify himself as a police officer immediately. Not that it would have mattered to the family's dog, which only knew Officer Peters was not someone he recognized and was in a house he didn't belong in. The dog responded to the rapidly-evolving situation like any dog would: he ran in the direction of the intruder and growled.

Standing inside the foyer, Peters knocked on the interior wall of the apartment. After the knock, the audio recording from Peters’s body microphone captures Harris yelling from the living room, “Who the f–ck is it?” (Peters Audio at 1:39.) Peters responds, “Police.” (Id. at 1:42.) Right after Harris yells and Peters responds, the audio recording captures the sound of Kane running and growling for four seconds. (Id. at 1:43–1:47.) Peters then contends that he said, “Get your f–cking dog,” but Harris contends that he could not hear Peters saying anything to him. (Peters Dep., R. 45-7, PageID 594.) The audio recording captures Peters saying “. . . [expletive] dog,” but the recording quality makes it difficult to discern the full quote or how loudly Peters was speaking. (Peters Audio at 1:47–1:48.) Kane continues to make noise, though it is unclear whether the sound is running, growling, or some combination of the two. Within two seconds of Peters saying “[expletive] dog,” the audio recording captures him shooting and killing Kane.

This six seconds is the point of the dispute. The dog's owner claims he tried to run down the stairs to get his dog but the officer killed the dog before he could get there. Officer Peters -- who had already engaged in a warrantless entry -- claimed the dog ran downstairs and began "growling, snarling, and biting at my feet and ankles" within this six-second period. He also claims he yelled for someone to get the dog and "kicked at it" before he decided to shoot it. The audio recording does not appear to contain this yell for assistance.

Officer Peters also claimed the dog's owner only came part of the way down the stairs before stopping and yelling at the officer, rather than attempting to get the dog.

Peters contends that, after he yelled, Harris appeared at the top of the stairway, ran a third of the way down the stairs, and started yelling at Peters, though the audio recording does not capture Harris yelling at this point.

And more inconsistencies:

After the shooting, the audio recording captures Harris saying, “Why you shoot my dog, man?” (Peters Audio at 1:52.) Peters says, “He was [expletive] biting me, man.” (Id. at 1:53.) But when deposed, Peters admitted that Kane never bit him. There, he testified that Kane was “biting at [him],” but Kane “did not make physical contact with [his] leg.” (Peters Dep., R. 45-7, PageID 592, 595.)

The family sued over the warrantless entry and the killing of their dog. The district court denied immunity on all counts. So does the Appeals Court, which finds much of what the officer did unreasonable, and suggests a jury might have trouble reconciling his actions with the Fourth Amendment.

Peters contends that when he entered through an unlocked door in a multi-occupant building, he believed that the door would lead to a foyer from which he could access the doors to multiple interior units. In his deposition, Peters testified that, in Jackson, “[t]here are countless large homes with multiple apartments inside of that large building most of which you have to go into to get to the individual apartments, be it one, two, three, A, B, C,” and, in his experience, the address markings on the exterior of such buildings would not always indicate that there were multiple units inside. (Peters Dep., R. 45-7, PageID 594.) But Peters also agreed that he had received no information from dispatch indicating that such subunits existed in this apartment, and that he was not asked to look for an individual in 513A, B, or C—he was simply told that Cox might be at 511 or 513 South Blackstone Street, each of which had its own door and address marking on the exterior of the home. The fact that some houses in Jackson have this design does not preclude a jury from finding that Peters was unreasonable in assuming that this house had such a feature.

The photographs of the home’s exterior further undermine the reasonableness of Peters’s belief: the clear address markings, individual mailboxes at each door, and the doorbell outside of the door marked 513 cut against the idea that this front door led to a common area rather than the entryway of an individual’s home.

[...]

Because there is a genuine dispute of material fact regarding whether Peters’s belief that he had not entered the plaintiffs’ home when he walked through their doorway was reasonable, we affirm the denial of qualified immunity as to this claim.

The same goes for his decision to shoot the family's dog. Peters tried two arguments to get out of being held responsible for this shooting. Neither of them work.

Despite this court’s holding in Brown, Peters argues that the right at issue was not clearly established for two reasons, neither of which is convincing. First, Peters argued that Brown was issued in 2016, which is later-in-time than the conduct at issue and therefore cannot suffice to clearly establish the law. This argument misreads Brown, where we unequivocally stated that the “constitutional right under the Fourth Amendment to not have one’s dog unreasonably seized . . . was clearly established in 2013.” Brown, 844 F.3d at 566–67. Because the right was clearly established in 2013, it was also clearly established when Peters shot Kane on November 28, 2014.

It's pretty bad when you can't even cite precedent right. It's worse when the precedent you cite undercuts your argument. But Peters' other argument is somehow even worse than this citation failure.

Second, Peters argues that he could not have been expected to anticipate our recognition in Smith v. City of Detroit, 751 F. App’x 691, 692 (6th Cir. 2018) that unlicensed dogs are property under the Fourth Amendment. Had Peters argued that he shot Kane because he believed Kane was unlicensed and that Harris and Richards had no property interest in an unlicensed dog, this argument might have some force. But Peters gives no indication that he knew or even considered whether Kane was unlicensed at the time of the shooting. [...] Thus, Peters’s ability to anticipate this court’s ruling in Smith has no bearing on whether Peters should reasonably have known that his actions were unconstitutional.

Be more reasonable, says the court. None of your arguments are at this point. Back it goes to the district court to do a few more rounds of motions and testimony to clear up the disputed narratives. Given the testimony Officer Peters has already handed out, it seems unlikely he'll be able to talk a jury into taking his side. This is going to end up costing taxpayers some money, even though the officer is now officially liable for his actions.

Filed Under: 4th amendment, donte cox, jackson police department, matthew peters, qualified immunity, warrants


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Oct 2019 @ 4:23pm

    Thankfully fully for the ninth circuit court of appeals!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    icon
    Zof (profile), 4 Oct 2019 @ 4:37pm

    Officers are used to being able to use ignorance as a defense

    Since they aren't actually required to understand the laws they are supposed to be enforcing. Since we pretend understanding the law is hard, so lawyers can feel smart, instead of hating themselves for not being able to get an MBA.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      icon
      Zof (profile), 4 Oct 2019 @ 4:41pm

      Re: Officers are used to being able to use ignorance as a defens

      To be clear, I'm not saying all lawyers are dumb. I'm just saying the jocks got sick of becoming shoe and car salesmen when their football careers didn't pan out so they rigged the game so they could become lawyers easily. That's why there are so many idiots with law degrees. Anybody can become a lawyer, it's so easy.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2019 @ 6:49am

      Re: Officers are used to being able to use ignorance as a defens

      Oh yeah, well, that's just great so the dumb ones are running around heavily armed menacing society while the "smart ones" just write more laws menacing society? WTF

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Oct 2019 @ 4:47pm

    way too many cops are barney and not near enough are andy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Oct 2019 @ 4:52pm

    What's the possible sentence for animal cruelty?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 4 Oct 2019 @ 5:13pm

      Re:

      The case is in civil court, it's a lawsuit. The criminal acts were never a consideration, as it appears the officer was not sanctioned by his department, or fired. Shame that that is.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2019 @ 5:51am

        Re: Re:

        The DA refuses to perform duties the of the job they are being paid for.
        Selective enforcement of the law is nothing new, however the increased public awareness is.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 4 Oct 2019 @ 5:30pm

      Re:

      Well he's got a badge, so... week of paid leave and a stern talking to to 'come up with a better excuse for killing a dog next time' will probably be about it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2019 @ 7:07am

        Re: Re:

        Do not ever invite cops into your home. I know I am guilty of this, but I have changed my ways. I have rehabilitated myself. I don't let cops into my home in any capacity.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2019 @ 8:14am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Apparently, the home owner has nothing to say about it, they just barge right in. I suppose they then criticize your choice of beer as they help themselves. Saw the video of cops playing nintendo bowling while supposedly executing a search warrant. btw, why do they call it executing a search warrant? Do they expect someone to die?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2019 @ 1:14pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Execute used as put to death is a shortened phrase and euphemism. Execute means to implement an order or complete a thing.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Tanner Andrews (profile), 5 Oct 2019 @ 1:19pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: [executing warrant]

            why do they call it executing a search warrant? Do they expect someone to die?

            That is actually a fairly common outcome, especially with no-knock warrants and raids during the dark hours. If the target of the raid is absent, the police often find kids or dogs and use those as substitute targets.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      OGquaker, 6 Oct 2019 @ 5:56pm

      Re: All a matter of degree

      Latasha Harlins died on 16 March 1991, the girl's death came 13 days after the beating of Rodney King. Killed by Soon Ja Du, the 51-year-old convenience store owner was convicted of 'voluntary manslaughter', was 'sentenced' to five years of probation and fined $500 ... The State Appeals Court unanimously upheld her 'sentence' a week before the LA riots in April of 1992.
      https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1991-11-16-mn-1402-story.html

      The Soon Ja Du 'sentence' for the back-of-the-head shooting and killing of a high school girl was less than the 30 day jail sentence another Los Angeles man received ONE WEEK later for kicking and stomping a dog.
      https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1997-02-11-me-27514-story.html

      I was 'sentenced' to 2 years probation and fined $100 for driving with an expired Drivers Licence about the same time.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Oct 2019 @ 5:18pm

    Shame that that is.

    And completely in line with the pattern of our injustice system.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 4 Oct 2019 @ 5:35pm

    Gotta love that 'Get out of responsibility free' badge

    If someone without a badge just walked into someone's house and killed the family's pet the case would be done in under a day at most, but since the one who did it so has a badge all of a sudden it's a huge deal and needs multiple courts to even open the possibility that a punishment might be handed out.

    While it's good that both the original court and the appeals court have shot down the downright pathetic excuses brought forth the fact that it even got to an appeals court highlights just how insanely privileged police are and the silk-glove treatment the courts grant them even when they aren't letting them off the hook for yet another atrocity.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2019 @ 1:10am

      Re: Gotta love that 'Get out of responsibility free' badge

      "If someone without a badge just walked into someone's house," they could be shot dead with impunity under the Castle Doctrine within the domain of the Sixth Circuit. It would go a long way towards repairing our problems with police criminality, if we could treat illegally intruding cops as "someone without a badge."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2019 @ 5:54am

        Re: Re: Gotta love that 'Get out of responsibility free' badge

        That has happened several times and iirc, the outcomes differ greatly.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2019 @ 6:58am

      Re: Gotta love that 'Get out of responsibility free' badge

      All the cops in the world can't stop the people from razing a town. If people are going to raze a town, they'll bring in the national guard, but if people want to raze a town, its going to get razed. Call it civil disobedience, call it mass riot, call it violent protest or whatever you like, but the people have spoken.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2019 @ 7:36am

        Re: Re: Gotta love that 'Get out of responsibility free' badge

        What people would destroy a whole town when it is only the police and court system that is acting against them? Mob violence in comment form apparently.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2019 @ 10:08am

          Re: Re: Re: Gotta love that 'Get out of responsibility free' bad

          It is the right of the people to protest their government. Some people are madder than others.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2019 @ 10:14am

          Re: Re: Re: Gotta love that 'Get out of responsibility free' bad

          Any attempt or act to turn the land of the free into the land of slaves should be immediately protested by a free people. But many have had the wool pulled over their eyes for so long, it just seems like business as usual.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2019 @ 10:48am

          Re: Re: Re: Gotta love that 'Get out of responsibility free' bad

          Don't you get it? It is an act to take the town away from the cops and court so they have no town to rule. It is a terrible act to be sure, pure chaos, but America was born out of chaos and if the government is not going to respect the people they intend to rule, there is little else to be discussed. Why do you think this government goes to such great lengths to strike fear into our hearts?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymouse, 6 Oct 2019 @ 5:41pm

          Re: Re: Re: Gotta love that 'Get out of responsibility free' bad

          "What people would destroy a whole town when it is only the police and court system that is acting against them?"

          That would be Trump and his supporters.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Wendy Cockcroft (profile), 8 Oct 2019 @ 3:08am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Gotta love that 'Get out of responsibility free'

            Correct. That people are ignoring the democratic and legal processes that could sort this out is the problem. It's a numbers game; if we vote for the right people in sufficient numbers, we effect change. If we can get gay marriage on the law books, why not the punishment of rogue LEOs?

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 6 Oct 2019 @ 1:51pm

        Re: Re: Gotta love that 'Get out of responsibility free' badge

        I think I'm going to call it 'batshit insanity, an overreaction akin to nuking a house for having a wasp nest on the porch', and file it into the 'nope' folder.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Oct 2019 @ 10:24am

    Scary, because this entire family may have 'an accident' (or multiple accidents) if the cops have to pay a massive fine out of their budget.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    dickeyrat, 5 Oct 2019 @ 11:34pm

    Enjoy it (the ruling) while it lasts. In the upcoming Neue Amerikan Fascist Paradise, now being assembled by the Rethugnicans, such behaviour by the gendarmes will be unquestionably correct and fully legally sanctioned. Your orders will be: GET USED TO IT!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JdL (profile), 7 Oct 2019 @ 3:49am

      Re:

      The only thing wrong with your comment is that you blame one political party exclusively. Don't look now, but the Democrats also want to rip you off and run your life.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bill Poser (profile), 6 Oct 2019 @ 8:41am

    don't hire wusses

    Qualified immunity is a problem, as are no-knock entries, but it would help if police departments would stop hiring wusses who have an inordinate fear of dogs.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 6 Oct 2019 @ 1:49pm

      Good idea, but probably not the source of that problem

      That assumes that it's cowardice rather than someone who at best is the sort to just indifferently kill an animal because they can(or, not so generous, really likes to kill animals and get away with it), which I strongly suspect is the real reason for such behavior in many of the cases like this.

      Someone who actually feared a dog that much would not just stand there and yell at the owner to come and get it, they'd be out the door and only then would they start yelling.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Oct 2019 @ 7:44am

      Re: don't hire wusses

      Many have a fear of their own shadow and will just shoot first and ask questions later. As in shoot YOU DEAD, Ops, wrong person. Oh well!!! Nothing happens to them. Onto the next thing while YOU'RE DEAD!!!!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Wyrm (profile), 8 Oct 2019 @ 9:19am

        Re: Re: don't hire wusses

        From some documents I've read and videos I've watched, lots of police department actively train their officers into paranoia. Officers are taught that danger is everywhere and the only chance they have to be home at the end of the day is pull a Han Solo ("always shoot first").

        "Guns are everywhere", "war on police" rhetoric and more add to that training by keeping an atmosphere of animosity all over the country.

        Finally, blind defense of bad cops is the last straw that makes this whole system a danger to citizens. After being trained to kill on sight, cops are (mostly) isolated from consequences.
        Paranoid cops with no incentives to exercise restraint, what could go ever wrong?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JdL (profile), 7 Oct 2019 @ 3:47am

    An even better outcome

    ... would have been for that asshole, criminal cop to have been shot on the spot. Preferably before he shot the dog.

    Cops in America are completely out of control, and it's way past time to push back in a serious manner.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Oct 2019 @ 2:33pm

    If I that were my dog I saw a cop point his gun at, I would have grabed on to his gun and tried to take it away him by force, so he could not use it.

    You see a cop pointing his gun at your dog, try to rip it out of his hand, so he can't shoot. Take his gun away from him, and then empty out of the bullets

    problem solved.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Wendy Cockcroft (profile), 8 Oct 2019 @ 3:10am

      Re:

      LOL! Good luck with that. You would be in jail so fast you wouldn't have time to blink, assuming you survived your attempt to part a cop from his gun. That you'd be in the right is not the point; you may beat the rap but you don't beat the ride.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 8 Oct 2019 @ 1:53pm

        Re: Re:

        I absolutely would throw myself in front of my animals and wrestle the cop down to the floor if he was attempting to kill my best friends.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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