By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A woman who was sleeping off a night of drinking on her office couch when attacked by a police dog has won reinstatement of her lawsuit challenging the San Diego police department's policy of unleashing its canines to "bite and hold" suspects during a search.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday reversed a lower court's dismissal of the lawsuit, which claims bite-and-hold tactics employed by police violated her constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizures.
In a 2-1 decision, the appeals panel ruled that a reasonable jury could find that policemen called to investigate a burglar alarm the woman had set off used excessive force when they "unleashed a police dog that the officers believed was likely to rip a person's face off."
The ruling, which has implications for law enforcement across the U.S. West, allows the complaint brought by Sara Lowry to proceed to trial.
Her suit stems from an ordeal that began Feb. 11, 2010, when Lowry returned to her workplace after consuming five vodka drinks in an evening with friends and fell asleep beneath a blanket on the office couch.
Three policemen, responding to the alarm she inadvertently tripped, arrived with a police dog and found the door to Lowry's darkened second-floor office propped open.
According to an account detailed in court documents, the dog's handler shouted: "This is the San Diego Police Department! Come out now or I'm sending in a police dog! You may be bitten!"
After repeating the warning without a reply, he unleashed the dog, which ran into the office, pounced onto the couch and attacked Lowry, tearing open her upper lip.
Spotting the woman with his flashlight, the officer called the dog back to his side. But by then, Lowry was bleeding profusely from a wound that would take three stitches to close.
The handler, Sergeant Bill Nulton, later told Lowry she was "very lucky" because his dog "could have ripped your face off," according to the account.
Nulton said in a deposition that police dogs are trained to enter a building when they are unleashed and to bite the first person they find and hold that bite until called off.
The dissenting appellate judge wrote that reinstating the suit means any officer in the nine-state Western region encompassed by the 9th Circuit who releases a police dog and follows with a flashlight in search of a suspect could "wind up in trial."
San Diego police declined comment on the case.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Sandra Maler)