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October 31, 2014

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Court overturns decision to dismiss Metro suit over fatal dog shooting

Three Las Vegas families are entitled to a trial on their claims that Metro Police officers violated their constitutional rights by entering a home without a warrant, holding a group of teenagers inside at gunpoint and fatally shooting a pet dog, a federal appeals court decided this week.

The decision, handed down Tuesday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, partially overturned rulings by U.S. District Judge Robert Clive Jones, who dismissed the case in 2013. The appellate panel said police did not establish enough probable cause or any other satisfactory exception to a warrant requirement to enter the family's home. There is also evidence that the officers used excess force, the panel determined.

The case stems from an Oct. 24, 2009, raid at the home of Jesus Rodriguez Sandoval and Adriana Rodriguez prompted by a 911 call from a neighbor who said he spotted two white teens ages 18 to 20 jumping a fence and peering through the windows of a house in his neighborhood. There had been a pattern of burglaries in the area, according to the 9th Circuit's summary of the case.

Sgt. Jay Roberts and Officer Michael Dunn responded to the call and approached the couple's house after seeing three male teens through an open bedroom window. The boys — Sandoval's son, Henry Brian Rodriguez, then 18; and two of his friends, ages 16 and 15 — were listening to music, watching TV and playing video games. They were all described as Hispanic.

According to plaintiff testimony, Roberts didn't ask who they were and pointed his gun at the head of one of the boys through the bedroom window. He gave them conflicting commands, telling them, "don't move," "(l)et me see your hands," and "turn the music down."

He then threatened to shoot the boy, according to the appellate court's summary of the case.

The officers ordered the boys to leave the room, according to court testimony, and their pit bull Hazel, slipped out in front of them. Roberts did not allow them to put the dog away, according to court records.

Dunn then shot the dog in the face, and it died after Animal Control staff arrived at the house.

The boys were then handcuffed by officers.

Henry Sandoval testified that the officer told him, "If you don't shut the (expletive) up, I'm going to let your dog die right here," according to the appellate court summary.

Jesus Sandoval said he arrived home with his 12-year-old daughter to find the boys on his front lawn. When he tried to approach his son, the officers handcuffed him, too.

The officers eventually left without charging anyone with a crime.

Judge M. Margaret McKeown, writing for the court, said the tip didn't give officers the right to enter the house without a warrant because there were no signs of a burglary and the house was occupied by three Hispanic teens, not two young white adults as the tipster suggested.

"The officers had no basis, either at the moment they breached the curtilage or at the moment Dunn entered the house, to conclude that the boys had violated any laws,” McKeown wrote.

Tuesday's decision wasn't a complete victory for the families — the appellate court stayed Jones' decision to dismiss efforts to define the animal as a family member so the plaintiffs could seek damages for deprivation of a "familial relationship." It also rejected claims that Metro was liable for the officers' actions due to department policy.

In the plaintiffs' complaint, representing attorney Brent Bryson said his clients seek at least $5 million to cover damages and legal fees.

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