: Can a canine officer’s handler be civilly liable when the canine bites a suspect in the line of duty?
: Maybe. It may depend on whether the dog’s state certification remains current and whether the dog goes through periodic maintenance training.
: Two plaintiffs sued an Ohio police officer, police chief, and their municipality, alleging that the peace officer used excessive force by allowing his canine officer, Spike, to bite them. They also alleged that the police chief failed to supervise the department’s canine unit and failed to permit routine maintenance training for the canine officers.
In each case, Spike bit the plaintiffs without receiving his handler’s command to do so. In the first case, plaintiff Samuel Campbell was found lying on the ground in the back yard of a home when Spike bit him. The police were at the home because they received a noise complaint, and Campbell alleged that Spike’s handler made eye contact with him before Spike bit him. In the second case, police were called to a home to investigate underage drinking and arrested plaintiff Chelsie Gemperline. After being cuffed and placed in the police cruiser, Gemperline managed to wriggle one hand out of the cuffs, crawl out the cruiser window, and run into a neighbor’s backyard. Officers began looking for Gemperline with Spike. Spike found her in a child’s playhouse and bit her. Spike’s handler had to remove the dog from Gemperline’s leg.
Why this case is important
: Based on the facts and circumstances of the plaintiffs’ cases, the Sixth Circuit denied the police officer’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the plaintiffs presented plausible claims for excessive use of force. In both cases, the plaintiffs were not armed or involved in violent, serious crime. Also, when found, neither plaintiff tried to resist arrest or flee the scene. Nor did Spike’s handling officer ever give any warnings to the plaintiffs before Spike bit them.
The court also denied the police chief’s motion because the plaintiffs showed evidence that the chief never approved Spike’s handling officer to get maintenance training for Spike even though it was necessary to maintain the dog’s obedience. Also, the chief continued to allow Spike to be in the field with his handling officer even though his Ohio canine peace officer certification had lapsed.
Keep in mind
: This case shows how crucial it is to have your canine units not only keep the dogs’ certifications current, but also stay up-to-date on their maintenance training. You can’t predict with 100 percent certainty what your canine officer will do, but maintenance training is essential to help ensure the dog’s obedience. Here, the fact that Spike’s certification had lapsed and that he failed to receive any maintenance training in the months before biting the plaintiffs may be evidence that would open up a dog’s handler and possibly others to civil liability.
Visit the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals
website to read the entire opinion.