Cop Can Face Lawsuit Over Dog Shooting

TALLAHASSEE — In the first time it has issued such a decision, a federal appeals court Wednesday cleared the way for a lawsuit against a Miami-Dade County police officer who fatally shot a resident’s American bulldog.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned key parts of a district judge’s decision that dismissed a lawsuit filed by resident Sylvan Plowright after the shooting of his dog, Niles. The appeals court said Plowright can pursue civil claims against officer Sergio Cordova for unreasonable seizure of property under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

While appellate courts in other parts of the country have issued similar decisions, the panel said it was a first-of-its-kind ruling in the 11th Circuit, which hears cases from Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

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“In the context of pet shootings by police, other (appellate) circuits have navigated this question without issue. Balancing pet owners’ strong property interests against the state’s own interest in ‘protecting (human) life,’ most circuits have acknowledged a ‘general principle that a police officer may justify shooting a dog . . . only when it presents an objectively legitimate and imminent threat to him or others.’ … Today, we join our sister circuits in holding that an officer may not use deadly force against a domestic animal unless that officer reasonably believes that the animal poses an imminent threat to himself or others,” the ruling said, partially quoting a decision from another circuit.

The case stems from an incident in which Plowright called 911 to report someone trespassing on vacant property near his home. Cordova and another officer, Leordanis Rondon, went to the home and drew their guns when Plowright came out to meet them, according to the ruling.

The ruling said the bulldog then “entered the scene,” and officers ordered Cordova to get control of him. Rondon used a taser on the dog, which was then fatally shot by Cordova, according to the ruling.

“According to Plowright, Cordova came to his house after he called 911, held him at gunpoint, and fatally shot his dog in front of him without justification, even though the dog had been ‘incapacitated’ by a taser and was ‘incapable of harming anyone,’” said the 24-page ruling, written by Judge Jill Pryor and joined by Chief Judge William Pryor and Judge Stanley Marcus.

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Plowright filed a lawsuit that named as defendants Cordova, Rondon, Miami-Dade County and then-Miami-Dade police chief Alfredo Ramirez. A district judge dismissed the case. Wednesday’s ruling allowed the lawsuit to move forward against Cordova but not the other defendants.

The lower court concluded that Cordova was entitled to what is known as qualified immunity “because he did not violate any clearly established right when he shot Niles,” Wednesday’s ruling said.

But the appeals court disagreed, finding that Plowright adequately alleged a violation of his Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable seizure of property. It said Florida law “is clear that domestic animals are their owners’ personal property.”

“Second, shooting a domestic animal undoubtedly interferes with its owner’s possessory interests, implicating the same analysis applied to an official’s destruction of other forms of property,” the ruling said. “To be constitutionally permissible, then, Cordova’s decision to shoot and kill Niles must have been reasonable.”

With the appeal about whether the lawsuit should have been dismissed before potentially going to trial, the panel said the case is at a stage “where we must accept the factual allegations in Plowright’s complaint as true. When we do, we conclude that a reasonable officer in Cordova’s position would not have believed he was in imminent danger when he shot Niles.”

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