Last Friday, Vallejo police fired tear gas into a house that they thought was inhabited by robbery suspects. They were wrong. The suspects weren’t in the house — just two little dogs. By the end of the assault, the house was on fire and one dog was dead.
When I read this KGO news report, my heart went out to these Vallejo residents. They are victims of bad luck, and of bad police work. I hope they don’t take it sitting down.
If the police violate your rights (or burn them to a crisp), you don’t have much time to file a claim against the government. California Government code section 911.2(a) requires you to provide formal notice of a claim to the government no more than 180 days after you were injured. These poor dog owners need to file a Government Tort Claim soon if they intend to pursue any kind of legal action against the Vallejo PD for this incident — ever.
As I see it, there are a couple different legal actions against the police they can pursue: negligence, and violation of civil rights. It seems pretty obvious that the police were negligent – they went to the wrong place, and they got the wrong result. Instead of bad guys in handcuffs, they got a dead dog in the ashes of a home.
So the police were negligent – but the issue is complicated. See, the government makes the rules about who gets to sue the government, and when, and how, and why, so the laws tend to be stacked against the injured party.
If the police here were operating in good faith on bad information, or if they misinterpreted accurate information, they might have ‘qualified immunity.’ Qualified immunity forbids you to sue the police if their actions were ‘reasonable under the circumstances’ and ‘not clearly incompetent.’ Basically, if the police had a reasonable belief that what they were doing was correct and legal – even if they made a terrible mistake – they can’t be sued. This couple needs a lawyer who knows how to build and prove a strong negligence case.
The other avenue for a lawsuit in this case is for violating this couple’s civil rights. We all have a constitutional right under the Fourth Amendment to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures of our person, property, and papers. [Wolf v. Colorado, 338 U.S. 25 (1949); Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961).] Searches are always intrusive – that’s why they generally have to be approved in advance by a judge signing a warrant. And seizures always deprive you of the use of something for a while, but that isn’t an excuse to wreck the joint.
In this case, the police started with a search for armed robbers that became a seizure – when they surrounded and gassed the (wrong) house, the police effectively ‘seized’ it and everything inside it. Even if the police had found the right house and the right guys, the police did things the wrong way.
The courts frown on that kind of ‘wrong way.’ In 1998 the San Jose police executed a search warrant on a building associated with a Hell’s Angels chapter. While ‘searching’ the property, the police shot several pitbulls to death and ‘accidentally’ damaged many motorcycles and personal possessions. The Hell’s Angels sued, and they won – the 9th Circuit agreed that the police violated the Fourth Amendment by acting unreasonably. See Hells Angels v. City of San Jose, 402F.3d 962, 977-78 (9th Cir. 2005).
In other words, it’s unreasonable to shoot pit-bulls and vandalize Harleys while searching for ‘outlaw bikers.’ Seems to me that tear-gassing dogs to death and burning a house to the ground, no matter who you’re looking for, is even less reasonable.
In any interaction between a civilian and the government, the government has the upper hand. If you’ve had an interaction with law enforcement that made you feel abused, mistreated, or taken advantage of, you need an aggressive, experienced attorney to win back your rights and get the justice you deserve.
I have defended the people of Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cloverdale, Ukiah, and the whole North Bay for years by standing up for individual citizens and representing justice. If you’re wondering “Can they really do this to me?” you deserve an answer. Give me a call at (707) 775-9459 or contact me through the form to the right.
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