Duties and functions

Court: Minneapolis cop who shot assistance dogs will not be protected by qualified immunity

A Minneapolis police officer who shot dead two service dogs in 2017 acted unreasonably and should not be protected by qualified immunity, a federal appeal committee ruled this week.

Qualified immunity protects police and other public officials from prosecution if they act reasonably within the scope of their duties. But Officer Michael Mays lost that protection when he jumped the fence that day, responding to an accidentally triggered home alarm system, and repeatedly shot two pit bulls who greeted him, according to the report. United States District Court of Appeals Eighth Circuit decision.

The appeals court ruling, which upholds a previous ruling by U.S. District Chief Justice John Tunheim, means the lawsuit against Mays and the city of Minneapolis can go ahead. Minneapolis City Attorney Jim Rowader declined to comment for this story.

The lawsuit alleges Mays violated the constitution when he and his partner responded to an alarm call at a north Minneapolis home in July 2017, where Jennifer LeMay and Courtney Livingston lived with LeMay’s two children. Livingston accidentally triggered the theft alarm system. She called the false alarm, although it’s not clear whether Comcast, the security company, relayed the message to police, according to the federal appeal decision written by Leonard Steven Grasz.

As his partner knocked on the front door, Mays jumped over a six-foot privacy fence in the backyard. A police report said the dogs “charged with [the] officer ”, but the surveillance footage told a different story. One of the dogs, a 60-pound male named Ciroc who served as a support dog for one of LeMay’s children, “walked over to Mays, wagging his tail in a friendly manner to greet Mays,” according to the lawsuit, Mays then shot Ciroc in the face.

The other dog, 130-pound Rocko, “introduced himself to Mays in a non-threatening manner,” according to court documents, and Mays shot Rocko in the body several times. Both dogs survived, but they were rendered incapable of performing their duty duties, according to the lawsuit.

LeMay and Livingston filed a complaint in 2019, alleging that Mays violated their right to be free from unreasonable seizure and that the city tried to cover it up. The city argued that Mays had acted reasonably, but Tunheim refused to dismiss the lawsuit, believing the dogs posed no imminent threat, and the city appealed the decision.

The legal standard for qualified immunity states that public officials can be protected “from civil liability for damages if their conduct has not ‘violated clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have knowledge.’ “

In the appeal, Mays argued that the panel of judges should take the description of the incident in the police report as evidence that he acted reasonably when he shot the dogs. “But he doesn’t just want us to look into the existence of the police report,” Grasz said. “He also wants us to accept his account as the truth. So, he asks us to accept as fact his own claim that the dogs growled when they came to him.”

In his view, Grasz said the allegations in the complaint showed probable cause that he was not in imminent danger.

“It is clearly established that an officer cannot shoot a dog in the absence of an objectively legitimate and imminent threat to him or to others,” he wrote. “So a reasonable officer would have known that shooting Ciroc and Rocko would violate the ‘clearly established right of landlords to be free from unreasonable seizure of property’.”

“We are satisfied with the court’s decision and hope that the defendants will now approach a speedy resolution of the case,” said lawyer Mike Padden, who represents LeMay and LIvingston.