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Appeals court finds cop had no duty to warn before siccing dog on suspect

A deputy who deployed his canine unit during a search following a DUI crash has evaded constitutional claims brought by the suspect after the Sixth Circuit determined he is entitled to qualified immunity.

CINCINNATI (CN) — A DUI suspect who led police on a high-speed chase and fled into a heavily wooded area cannot bring constitutional claims against a deputy who deployed his canine unit without issuing a warning, an appeals court panel ruled Friday.

Police in Clinton, Michigan, were alerted to a possible drunk driver in August 2017 after a gas station clerk sold cigarettes to Cory Jarvela, who eventually led several officers on a high-speed chase that ended in a head-on collision with a tree.

Jarvela abandoned his vehicle and fled into a dark, wooded area while police radioed for backup, which arrived in the form of Washtenaw County Deputy Richard Houk.

Houk brought along his canine unit, Argo, and the two began to search the area with the animal on a 15-foot leash.

Argo eventually found Jarvela's shirt and shoe in the grass near the suspect's hiding spot and latched on to his right arm shortly thereafter.

The canine unit and Jarvela tangled on the ground for roughly 30 seconds before Houk deployed his taser and ordered Argo to release his grip.

Jarvela sued the deputy and several others in federal court in 2019. While a judge granted the majority of the defendants' motions for summary judgment, Houk was denied qualified immunity on Jarvela's Fourth Amendment excessive force claim.

U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith determined Houk was required to issue a verbal warning prior to releasing his canine unit on Jarvela, which prompted the deputy's appeal to the Sixth Circuit.

The case was argued before a three-judge panel in June 2022, and Friday's opinion overturned Goldsmith's ruling.

U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote the terse, six-page opinion, and said the danger posed by Jarvela made Houk's use of his canine unit reasonable.

Jarvela argued and Goldsmith ruled that under the unpublished Sixth Circuit decision in Matthews v. Jones, an officer must warn a hiding suspect prior to the use of a canine unit, but Kethledge was quick to point out Houk never released Argo from his leash.

"The district court and Jarvela both overlook that those warnings themselves came with a threat: that, if Matthews did not surrender, the officer would unleash the dog altogether," he said. "The same was true in Robinette [v. Barnes], where the officer warned the suspect and then unleashed the dog -- which bit the suspect fatally, albeit constitutionally.

"Those cases therefore do not support the proposition that an officer must always shout a verbal warning before tracking a suspect with a dog that the officers keep on a leash."

Kethledge opined that the "warn-then-unleash" approach increases the risks for all parties involved, and emphasized both methods fall within the parameters of "accepted police practice."

He left no doubt regarding the circuit's precedent moving forward in similar cases, and said bluntly, "the Constitution does not require a canine handler always to shout out a warning to a fleeing suspect."

The unified panel of conservative judges – including Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton, another Bush appointee, and U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Murphy, a Donald Trump appointee – also determined Houk is entitled to immunity for his actions after Argo found and bit Jarvela.

"Here," Kethledge wrote, "Houk ceased to use any force once Jarvela complied with Houk's commands to roll onto his stomach. And Jarvela has not identified any binding precedent that would have made clear to Houk that any of the force he used before then was unnecessary to ensure Jarvela's submission. Houk is therefore entitled to judgment on all of Jarvela's claims against him."

The case will be remanded to federal court with instructions to issue judgment in favor of Houk.

Neither party immediately responded to requests for comment.

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