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Cop seeks immunity for siccing dog on man during welfare check

The Virginia officer argues he was justified in ordering his police dog to attack a suicidal man because he was worried the man was armed.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A Virginia law enforcement officer urged a Fourth Circuit panel on Tuesday to grant him immunity in a lawsuit accusing him of wrongfully ordering a police canine to attack a suicidal man during a wellness check. 

Lying in a shallow ditch created by an uprooted tree on May 20, 2019, Dillard Putman gazed up toward Corporal Quentin Harris and another officer with the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Office who responded to the mental health call. 

Putman’s wife, Kandi, had just alerted emergency services that her husband sent her a series of texts in which he threatened to use a gun to commit suicide, according to court records. After the officers searched Putman’s house at the behest of Kandi, they headed for the nearby woods on the property.  

Enter Criss, a canine officer who, following a two-minute, verbal back-and-forth between the cops and suspect, was ordered by Harris to bite Putman. 

The following year, Putman filed a federal lawsuit against Harris in the Western District of Virginia, alleging the officer executed a false arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment. He also claimed Harris' use of Criss constituted excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment and state law. 

In March 2022, a federal judge denied Harris qualified immunity from the suit, finding that the "severity of the crime" factor favored Putman because he was not suspected of a crime and only threatened to harm himself. Senior U.S. District Judge James P. Jones also said that Putman was not an active threat to the officers, making the use of the canine unnecessary.

Harris appealed to the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit, which heard arguments Tuesday.

“Our position is that the district court improperly denied qualified immunity because, under the undisputed facts as found by the district court, Corporal Harris did not violate Mr. Putman’s clearly established Fourth Amendment rights,” Harris' attorney Julian F. Harf told the three-judge panel.

Harf said his client takes “no issue with the facts as interpreted by the district court.” Rather, he said, they believe the court made an improper legal decision based on the agreed-upon facts.

U.S. Circuit Judge Harvie Wilkinson, appointed by Ronald Reagan, interjected by asking how Putman’s body was situated when the officers used the canine. 

Harf, who practices with the law firm Guynn & Waddell PC, explained that Putman was on the ground attempting to rise to his knees when the dog was given the command to attack. 

The attack, which lead to serious injuries, came after the dog “missed” Putman upon the officer’s first command, Harf said.

The attorney contended that Harris had valid reasons to use this level of force based on his belief that Putman could be armed. 

“We have these text messages from Putman to his wife saying, ‘I have this gun, I’m going to use it to kill myself,'” Harf said, adding that the officers noted “signs of instability” upon arrival to the scene.

Those signs included Putman’s disposition—smelling of alcohol in a ditch that the district court had called a “shallow grave." 

However, Putman didn’t have a gun on him when officers arrived on his property and he made no indication that a weapon was present, argued attorney Andrew Lucchetti of the Halperin Law Center.

Lucchetti, who represented Putman during Tuesday’s arguments, told the panel that his client simply spent a minute calmly asking the officers why they were present on his property and did not physically resist them. He added the officers refused to tell Putman why they were there.

Wilkinson was joined on the panel by two Barack Obama appointees, U.S. Circuit Judge Albert Diaz and U.S. District Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr., sitting by designation from the Western District of North Carolina.

The panel did not indicate when a decision will be issued.

Lucchetti and Harf did not immediately respond to a request for comment after the hearing.

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