Family Stumbles in Suit Over Cop’s Dog Shooting | Courthouse News Service
Thursday, November 30, 2023
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Family Stumbles in Suit Over Cop’s Dog Shooting

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) - A police officer cannot be sued for charging a homeowner with violating dog laws when she threatened legal action for the alleged needless shooting of her pet.

Bandit, a "harmless and gentle dog" that was euthanized after the shooting, never attacked anybody, the family claimedin February.

But that didn't stop Deputy Sheriff William Vernouski from opening a backyard gate and shooting the pup with a .45-caliber pistol from 10 feet away, according to the suit.

Nikita Reid said she never got an explanation from Vernouski about why he shot the dog while executing 9-year-old warrants for her ex-husband, who hadn't lived at her home for seven years.

The complaint says the police tried to cover up their wrongdoing and silence the family roughly a month later by initiating a bogus criminal dog-law citation against the property's owner. That citation, initiated by officer Fred Lamke, falsely accused Linta Bryant of letting the dog escape from her premises and attack Vernouski, according to the complaint.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Stengel upheld some claims against Vernouski in September, but his latest ruling dismisses all of the charges against Lamke.

The lawsuit had claimed the charges against Bryant amounted to retaliation since Reid's co-worker threatened litigation when speaking to the county commissioner about the incident. Reid was also in communication with Harrisburg Police Chief Charles Kellar at that time, though "promised to help her, but failed to follow-up."

Stengel granted Lamke's motion to dismiss on Nov. 4, finding that the Reids and Bryant "did not suffer a deprivation of liberty" to substantiate malicious-prosecution claims since there was no seizure.

No citations were issued against the Reids, and they were not required to appear in court. While a citation was issued against Bryant, and she was required to appear in court, no additional restrictions impinged on her liberty and "the issuance of a citation and a requirement that the plaintiff appear in court is not a Fourth Amendment seizure," Stengel wrote.

The Reids and Bryant maintained that there was an "additional element of restraining their freedom to seek legal recourse for the wrongs committed against them," but Stengel said that claim was inapplicable to malicious prosecution law.

"Mr. Lamke was not present in the backyard at the time the incident took place," the 11-page decision states. "It is also undisputed that the dog was barking at Deputy Vernouski and that Ms. Reid told the officers to wait while she put the dog out back. These circumstances could lead a reasonable person to believe that Ms. Bryant violated the law by allowing Bandit to escape through the back door and attack Deputy Vernouski. Because Mr. Lamke had probable cause to initiate the legal proceedings, I find plaintiffs failed to state a malicious prosecution claim under Pennsylvania state law."

Lamke also dodged First Amendment claims as to retaliation. "The amended complaint does not allege Ms. Bryant engaged in constitutionally protected conduct," Stengel wrote. "The complaint also does not allege that Mr. Lamke was aware plaintiffs raised any concerns following the incident."

Citing Reid moreover does not amount to a violation of the plaintiffs' 14th Amendment right of access to the courts and First Amendment right to petition for redress.

"Although Mr. Lamke was involved in the issuance of the citation, it is unclear how the issuance of a citation interfered with plaintiffs' right to access the court," Stengel wrote.

"The basis of plaintiffs' claim for denial of access to the court is that Mr. Lamke, directed by Jane Doe, issued a citation against Ms. Bryant because he knew plaintiffs were planning to take legal recourse," the decision states. "Even if defendants knew plaintiffs were going to take legal recourse and issued the citation to stop such action, this would not constitute denial of access to the courts. I will grant Mr. Lamke's motion to dismiss the plaintiffs' First Amendment retaliation claim and their denial of access to the court claim."

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