The Las Vegas police officer who went onto private property Sunday and fatally shot a family's bully pit bull was within his legal rights because he was investigating a gunshot and heard moaning or screaming coming from the backyard, Las Vegas police said Monday.
But an official with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada said the onus is on police to prove circumstances did in fact legally justify the officer's right to be in the backyard.
Police will conduct an internal investigation into the dog shooting.
Metropolitan Police Department Sgt. John Sheahan said in a statement emailed to the Review-Journal that "because of the nature and circumstances surrounding the call, exigent circumstance exceptions to the Fourth Amendment were more than satisfied, and thus entry to the backyard was both lawful and within policy."
The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures and states people have the right to be secure in their homes.
Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for ACLU of Nevada, said the "devil is in the details."
"If they want to make the claim that what they did was constitutionally justified because of exigent circumstances, then they bear the burden of demonstrating the exigent circumstances."
Police on Monday identified the officer in the shooting as 42-year-old Sgt. William Wilson.
Police said Wilson was investigating a disturbance call in the 200 block of Earl Street at 1:49 p.m. when he heard a shot fired in the backyard of an adjacent residence on the 100 block of South 16th St. Wilson also heard yelling or moaning coming from the backyard after the gunshot, police said.
The investigation led police to the backyard of the home at 147 S. 16th St., near Carson Avenue, where a pit bull-type dog charged Wilson, police said. He fired one round and killed the dog.
No one was found in the backyard, but police found a shell casing that was a different caliber than the one fired by Wilson. No one was arrested or cited in connection to a gunshot investigation, Sheahan said.
Lichtenstein said the police account raises a lot of questions, such as how Wilson knew with certainty which house the gunshot and screaming were coming from while he was a street over. And did police investigate other homes to determine where the yelling or moaning originated?
Lichtenstein said a gunshot heard from a nearby street does not amount to a legitimate circumstance allowing police access to a private backyard without permission.
Sheahan said it was his understanding Wilson was in a position to pinpoint the location of the shooting.
Police initially said Sunday the investigation that preceded the dog shooting was about a disturbance involving either a gunshot or fireworks.
Victor Patino, 23, said that Monday was a difficult day for him and that he was just coming to grips with the fact that his 6-year-old bully pit bull, Bubba, was dead.
Patino said he is upset about many aspects of the police investigation, including that officers never knocked on the front door of his house to alert his family of the investigation.
He said if police had done that, the family could have secured their backyard. Instead, 120-pound Bubba was most likely startled by the intrusion and was protecting the property, if he did charge at the officer, Patino said.
Patino was sleeping when his dog was shot.
He added Wilson shot Bubba in the head. A sign that read "Beware of dog" hung on the backyard's metal fence.
He said Wilson opened up the fence's door and entered the yard.
"What happened was completely unacceptable," Patino said. "It should have never happened."
Patino said after Bubba was shot, it seemed officers froze. He said his family did not see them questioning neighbors to find the source of the gunshot and yelling.
Patino said his family is considering suing Las Vegas police.
Wilson remains on duty pending the outcome of the internal investigation. The investigation will determine whether he is disciplined, commended or has no action taken against him.
Wilson's captain will get the final say on the matter based on the internal findings. Wilson was hired by the department in March 1997.
Patino said Bubba will never be forgotten. His family had him since he was 6 months old.
"He wasn't just a pet, he was a family member."
Contact reporter Antonio Planas at email@example.com or 702-383-4638.