Orlando Police Not Entitled to Qualified Immunity From Excessive Force Lawsuit Involving Dog – Edwards v. Shanley

January 18, 2012 by David S. Seltzer

As a criminal defense lawyer in south Florida, I often hear from my clients about arrests in which the police used excessive force. Force is part of a police officer’s job, but it’s also subject to limitations that respect the arrestee’s civil rights. Officers who clearly overstep those limitations can lose their immunity from lawsuits, and that’s what happened to two Orlando police officers accused of excessive use of force in Edwards v. Shanley et al.. Colin Edwards was driving his wife’s car with a suspended license when he was pulled over. Panicking, he ran and was eventually tracked by a police dog, which he claims attacked him for five to seven minutes despite the fact that he had already surrendered. The Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Jan. 12 that the officers were not entitled to immunity from his subsequent lawsuit.

Officer Justin Lovett of the Orlando police attempted to pull Edwards over for failing to stop properly at a stop sign in 2008. Edwards parked, got out and ran into the woods, but didn’t get very far before he decided to surrender by lying down on his stomach with his hands exposed. Meanwhile, Lovett had summoned Officer Bryan Shanley and his dog, Rosco, who led the humans to Edwards. The officers shouted to Edwards to show his hands, and Edwards shouted “You got me. I only ran because of my license.” As he said his, however, Rosco began biting his leg. Edwards alleges in his complaint that this continued for five to seven minutes as he lay there and occasionally yelled “I’m not resisting.” The officers made no move to arrest or instruct him further, but eventually did handcuff him before commanding the dog to release his bite.

Edwards was transported to the hospital, where a doctor said he’d suffered significant muscle and tendon damage from substantial loss of tissue. One of the officers joked that it looked like filet mignon, and that this is why officers do not feed their dogs. Edwards eventually pleaded no contest to felony fleeing a police officer; charges of resisting an officer, striking a police dog and driving with a suspended license were dismissed. He sued both officers, alleging Shanley used excessive force and Lovett failed to stop the attack. The federal district court for central Florida dismissed the case, granting the officers qualified immunity. This appeal followed.

On appeal, Edwards argued that the use of a police dog was itself excessive, but that the officers also violated his Constitutional rights by allowing the dog to continue biting for five to seven minutes “while Edwards pleaded to surrender.” The Eleventh Circuit was more impressed by the second argument. Noting that the record on appeal was scant and a jury might have a more complete picture of the facts, it found that the problem lay in the officers’ choice to let the dog attack continue past the first bite. While officers may have been justified in fearing Edwards before they caught up to him and could see what kind of threat he posed, the court said, they lost the justification after finding him facedown with his hands visible and asking to surrender. Allowing the dog to continue was unnecessary, “gratuitous and sadistic,” the court said, thus clearly violating the Constitution. It reversed the grant of qualified immunity to both officers.

As a Fort Lauderdale driving while license suspended lawyer, I’m pleased that the Eleventh Circuit came to this conclusion. I noticed that Edwards originally faced a charge of resisting an officer without violence and one of striking a police dog. Resisting an officer is a classic example of a charge brought by Florida police when they don’t like the suspect, often on the thinnest of evidence. In this case, the police dog charge likely also serves this function, since the record shows Edwards had no opportunity to strike the dog. As a Miami resisting an officer attorney, I vigorously defend these cases, often by pointing out to prosecutors that the facts are on my client’s side.

If you or someone you love is facing criminal charges in south Florida, don’t hesitate to call Seltzer Law, P.A., for a free consultation. We know police don’t stop working after business hours, so neither do we — you can reach us 24 hours a day and seven days a week at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or through our website.

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