If you are attacked or bitten by a K-9 police dog, is the officer or police department liable for damages?
They might be – although SC law provides limited immunity for the actions of police dogs acting in their law enforcement capacity, the dog handler and their agency must comply with the requirements of SC law, or they will lose their protections.
How are K-9 units used in SC, and when are the police liable for damages after a K-9 police dog bites or attacks someone?
How are K-9 Police Dogs Used?
K-9 police dogs are used in many different situations, and some dogs are specially trained for one use.
Dogs can 1) locate drugs, people, or evidence of crime, and 2) provide probable cause for an officer to search a person, home, or vehicle.
For example, dogs are often trained and used for:
- Detection – dogs have 225 million scent receptors in their noses (people only have around 5 million), and they are trained to detect all kinds of substances including drugs, accelerants used for arson, explosives, and other types of evidence found at crime scenes.
- Traffic stops – K-9 units will often walk their dog around a vehicle during a traffic stop to search for drugs because the US Supreme Court has held that a dog sniff is not a search under the Fourth Amendment (although an unreasonably long detention without reasonable suspicion is unconstitutional).
- Search and rescue – dogs can be invaluable in search and rescue efforts to find persons who are lost, kidnapped, missing, buried, or deceased.
- Tracking – dogs are often used to track suspects who have fled from a crime scene.
- Pursuits and Apprehension – K-9 police dogs may also be trained to chase, apprehend, bite, and hold a suspect during a police chase.
Dogs are also dangerous, and, in some cases, police departments and dog handlers can and should be held liable under the SC State Tort Claims Act or 42 USC § 1983 for injuries that they cause.
Liability for Attacks by K-9 Police Dogs
SC Code § 47-3-110 provides for strict liability if you are attacked by a dog in SC, but what if you are attacked by a K-9 police dog?
SC law says that, with some exceptions, there is no liability for a dog attack if “the dog was working in a law enforcement capacity with a governmental agency and in the performance of the dog’s official duties.”
So, as a starting point, the dog must be:
- Working in a law enforcement capacity – if officer Friendly brings his pet to work and it bites someone, the dog was not working in a law enforcement capacity and the officer or their employer is liable for damages,
- With a governmental agency – if officer Friendly is off-duty when his dog attacks someone, he is liable for damages even if the dog was a trained K-9 police dog, and
- In the performance of the dog’s official duties – even if both officer and dog are “on duty,” the officer or his employer is liable for damages if the attack was not “in the performance of the dog’s official duties.”
Even if all the above applies, there are still exceptions to K-9 police dog immunity when:
The dog’s attack was not “in direct and complete compliance with the lawful command of a duly certified canine officer.”
If the dog bites, knocks down, or otherwise injures a person, and it was not in response to a lawful command of its handler, the officer or their employer may be liable for damages.
If the attack was in response to a command from the dog’s handler, but the officer giving the command was not a “duly certified canine officer,” the officer or their employer may still be liable for damages.
The dog was not “trained and certified according to the standards adopted by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Training Council.”
Believe it or not, some officers still use dogs that are not trained and certified – if the K-9 in question was not “trained and certified according to the standards adopted by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Training Council,” there is no protection from liability if the dog hurts someone.
The agency does not have a “written policy on the necessary and appropriate use of dogs in the dog’s official law enforcement duties.”
The agency using the K-9 police dog must have a written policy in place that specifies when K-9’s can be used and how they are to be used – if there is no written policy, the officer or their agency does not have protection from liability under SC law.
The K-9 police dog or the dog’s handler violates the agency’s written policy.
If there is a written policy in place at the agency employing the K-9 police dog, and the handler (or dog) violates that policy, there is no protection from liability under SC law.
The dog or the dog handler’s actions constitute excessive force.
Even if the K-9 is properly trained, the handler is properly certified, they were working in a law enforcement capacity, there is a written policy in place, and the officer is abiding by the written policy, that’s not a license to unnecessarily hurt people with a K-9 police dog.
If the dog or the handler’s actions constitute excessive force, the officer or their employer will still be liable for the dog attack under SC law.
The attack is on a bystander.
If a K-9 police dog is chasing a “bad guy,” but gets distracted and bites or knocks down someone who was just standing nearby, the officer or their employer is liable for damages to the bystander regardless of whether the dog’s attack on the suspect was justified.
Questions About K-9 Police Dog Attacks?
The Charleston K-9 dog bite and civil rights attorneys at the Boles Law Firm can help you to determine liability, gather the evidence you will need in court, and recover the maximum compensation that you are entitled to for your injuries.
Call us at 843-576-5775 to schedule an appointment for a free consultation at our North Charleston or Walterboro offices or send us a message through our website.