Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Ninth Circuit Clarifies Standards for Reasonable Force

In Lowry v. City of San Diego, the Ninth Circuit clarified some of the standards for determining the reasonableness of the force used. In a 2-1 decision, the Ninth Circuit held a reasonable jury could find the San Diego Police Department’s (“SFPD”) K9 “bite and hold” policy was a severe use of force.  

After a night of drinking with her friends, the plaintiff, Sara Lowry, returned to her workplace and fell asleep on her office couch. Lowry unknowingly triggered the building’s burglar alarm when she got up to use the restroom.

SFPD were called to investigate. Sgt. Bill Nulton and his police dog, Bak, along with two other officers, found the door to Lowry’s office suite open. Sgt. Nulton yelled, “This is the San Diego Police Department! Come out now or I’m sending in a police dog! You may be bitten!” Nulton waited 30-60 seconds, but received no response. He repeated the warnings, but eventually released Bak “off lead” (without a leash). Bak made her way to Lowry’s office and bit Lowry’s lip. Nulton immediately commanded the dog to release her hold.

Lowry brought a § 1983 action against the City, alleging the City’s policy of training its police dogs to bite and hold resulted in a violation of her Forth Amendment rights.  According to the Ninth Circuit, a court must consider both the type of force used and the potential harm it may cause. The district court erred in only considering Lowry’s actual harm rather than the potential harm the K9 could inflict. As Sgt. Nulton told Lowry after the incident, “I just can’t believe that’s the only damage. You’re very lucky. She could have ripped your face off.”

The Ninth Circuit also considered whether other tactics would be appropriate in the circumstances. The court believed Sgt. Nulton could have kept Bak on lead to maintain control. While the court did find Nulton’s multiple warnings were helpful in showing the force was reasonable, it was only minimally so because Lowry did not hear the commands.

Law enforcement agencies may look to the Lowry decision when determining whether an officer used reasonable force in a disciplinary case.