Appeals court: Las Vegan can sue police in death of two dogs

CARSON CITY — A Las Vegas woman can sue the North Las Vegas Police Department and six officers over the killing of her 70-pound pit bull and 140-pound mastiff dogs, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided.

In a 2-1 vote that reversed a U.S. District Court decision, the circuit court ruled Thursday that District Judge Larry Hicks of Nevada was wrong when he summarily dismissed Louisa Thurston’s civil rights lawsuit over the shooting of her pets, Blue and Bruno, on Feb. 8, 2008. Three small dogs owned by Thurston were not harmed.

The judges said there are “genuine issues of material fact as to whether the police officers acted reasonably.” In the decision, they said police waited 20 minutes after entering the home before firing on the dogs.

“I want these cops held accountable,” said Thurston on Friday night. “It is not about money; it was about what they did to my babies. Bruno (the mastiff) was awesome. My dogs did not growl. They did not bark. I don’t want this to happen to other people who love their animals.”

She said Bruno was shot eight times and the dead dogs were hauled away in a bloody clear plastic bags that she and her 16-year-old daughter saw. Thurston sobbed in talking about their deaths.

“Why did they do it?” she asked. “None of them were bitten. They saw them wiggling their tails when they arrived. I begged with them not to hurt my dogs.”

A Police Department spokeswoman said she could not comment on continuing litigation. With North Las Vegas offices closed Friday, no one was available to say whether the Police Department will appeal the 9th Circuit decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Six SWAT officers had gone to the home to execute a search warrant against Thurston’s husband, Michael Martin, wanted on armed robbery charges.

The court said it is reasonable to infer that “the officers had enough time to observe the dogs’ behavior and summon animal control officers” before they were attacked by the dogs. It said there is a “genuine issue of fact as to whether the dogs attacked” police.

In the decision, the appeals court said North Las Vegas Police Department policy “dictates attendance, if not participation, of an animal control officer whenever police know there are dogs present inside a home.”

“The absence of an animal control officer — in contravention of general policy and despite time to summon one after entry — further raises a genuine issue of fact as to the reasonableness of the officers’ actions,” the decision states

Las Vegas animal welfare activist Gina Greisen, founder of Nevada Voters for Animals, said the decision should be a lesson for police who shoot dogs first rather than taking steps to secure them through non-lethal means.

“You cannot use deadly force on pets without repercussions,” she said. “We hope this sends a strong message to all police departments in Nevada and across the country. We see this as a huge victory.”

State Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, has announced he will introduce a bill next year requiring police to receive training in dog behavior so to avoid situations where they feel they have no choice but to shoot dogs.

The circuit judges also ruled that Thurston cannot sue North Las Vegas city government itself. They said there was no evidence that the SWAT team killed the dogs “pursuant to a formal government policy.”

Her lawsuit against the Police Department and individual officers, however, can proceed. Thurston also will be compensated for the cost of appealing the lower court decision.

In a dissent, Judge Paul Watford said police knew there were “large, potentially aggressive dogs on the property,” but these dogs appeared to be confined in the backyard. The dogs, however, then “unexpectedly flung the door open with their noses.”

Watford said officers feared for their safety when the dogs “growled, bared their teeth and charged at them inside the house.”

In appeals documents, attorneys for the six police officers said they needed to make a “split-second decision.” Dogs were able to enter and leave the house by pushing on a piece of plywood, according to documents.

Cal Potter, who represented Thurston, said she considered the dogs her babies and vomited when she saw the dead dogs put into bags.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901. Follow him on Twitter @edison vogel.