NEW YORK (AP) — A Connecticut city's reputation as one of America's most dangerous communities did not give police officers the right to invade a yard where they killed a family dog after getting an erroneous tip that guns were hidden in an abandoned car behind the home, a federal appeals court said Thursday.
In reversing a jury verdict, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan put a spotlight on the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, especially in high-crime neighborhoods.
A three-judge panel said a trial can decide damages owed by the city of Hartford after two police officers lacking a warrant or probable cause entered the yard in December 2006, where a 12-year-old girl was playing after school with Seven, her St. Bernard.
The girl, identified in papers only as "K.H.," testified she heard two shots shortly after the dog ran around to the front yard. She said she found Officer JohnMichael O'Hare with the dog, which was lying in the grass, panting, with its tail wagging and its tongue out. She recalled screaming: "Don't shoot my dog!"
She said the officer "looked at me, leaned over, and he shot him in the head."
Then, she added, he told her: "Sorry, Miss, but your dog's not going to make it."
In a pretrial deposition, O'Hare testified the dog had "rushed in rage right at us" and made "a low growl, like a dog would do when it was about to attack."
"It was snapping its teeth and it was growling, it was coming to get me," the officer said. He said he saw the girl after the shots were fired and said nothing to her.
The appeals court said lawyers for the city and officers had "overvalued" Hartford's high crime rate as an "exigent circumstances" justification to enter the yard.
"Taken to its logical end, this argument would permit exigent circumstances anytime there is a tip about illegal guns being located somewhere in a high-crime neighborhood or city, and would allow the exception to swallow the rule," Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler wrote.
The city of Hartford's attorney declined to comment. Lawyers for the officers did not immediately return messages.
The girl's father, Glenn Harris, testified at a May 2012 trial that his daughter needed hospitalization and antidepressants afterward and still believes she should have prevented the shooting.
In a statement issued Thursday by attorney Jon L. Schoenhorn, the girl thanked her father, who brought the lawsuit, for "getting Seven the justice he deserves."
She said the dog's death had been hard on her entire family, especially herself.
"Seven was my brother, my companion, my everything," she added.
Harris said in a statement that he wanted to thank a Hartford Police Department employee who came to the home to apologize after the shooting. He said the ruling "reaffirms that your rights are the same, regardless of where you live."
Schoenhorn called the decision significant for making clear that areas outside a home are protected from unreasonable searches.