MERCED, Calif. (CN) – The picturesque May morning was off to a seemingly normal start for George Aguaristi, a self-described animal lover who lived alone in a rural neighborhood in California’s agricultural heartland. But before Aguaristi even stepped outside, a neighbor knocked on the front door with unsettling news: A squad of law enforcement officers surrounded and entered Aguaristi’s gated property just after sunrise, then shot his dog and used his property as a urinal.
Aguaristi claims he was still asleep when officers entered his property, bypassed several “Beware of Dog” and “No Trespassing” signs, and ultimately maced and shot his pit bull Samson. The two officers, who were recorded by Aguaristi’s security cameras, then moved the 5-year-old Samson’s dead body from the property and returned to clean blood off the driveway with Aguaristi’s garden hose.
The dog-killing and cleanup only took about 30 minutes. But it’s had a lasting effect on Aguaristi, who is now locked in a federal lawsuit against the officers and Merced County.
“He’s destroyed because he’s living alone and his dogs are his best friends; Samson was just taken from him,” said Aguaristi’s lawyer Joseph Sweeney.
The middle-aged Aguaristi claims he was never shown a warrant or given explanation about his dog while the officers were still on his property. The tragic day only got worse for Aguaristi after he saw additional security footage showing a male officer answering nature’s call near his fence.
“To add insult to injury, an officer at the scene…urinated on plaintiff’s property,” the complaint filed in the Eastern District of California states.
In addition to the county and its sheriff’s department, Aguaristi names the district attorney’s office and its two investigators, Andrea Valtierra-Gongora and Curtis Gorman, as defendants. Aguaristi’s claims include illegal search and seizure, trespass and negligence, and he seeks general, special and punitive damages.
This past summer, the county denied Aguaristi’s municipal claim regarding his dog’s death. But it’s not having as easy a time brushing Aguaristi off in federal court.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd in Fresno denied the heart of the defendants’ motion to dismiss and allowed several of Aguaristi’s claims to stand. The judge, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2014, says a “fact-intensive” inquiry is needed and that neither the county, the investigators involved nor even the district attorney's office can’t squash the lawsuit just yet.
Merced County Counsel Roger Matzkind paints a decidedly different picture of Samson’s death.
In a phone interview, Matzkind said the officers were serving a valid warrant on one Aguaristi’s tenants and that to him the video, which hasn’t been introduced as evidence in the case yet, clearly shows Samson jumping on the officer. Furthermore, the officer caught on camera urinating wasn’t even on Aguaristi’s property and is a nonstarter issue.
“They had a specific plan on how to deal with the dog and unfortunately the dog attacked,” Matzkind said in a phone interview.
But Aguaristi’s attorney Sweeney, whose firm is based in Oakland, said the county didn’t do their homework and possibly got the address of their suspect wrong.
“He was not on any warrant whatsoever. He was never arrested, he was actually asleep when they came to his house,” Sweeney said in a phone interview.
Matzkind scoffed at the notion that a team of officers decided to invade the property without cause.
“When you have an arrest warrant that means a judge issued it,” Matzkind said.
After the incident, Matzkind contends officers knocked on Aguaristi’s door multiple times and even left a business card. He added the defendants intend to file a motion for summary judgment in the near future.
In court filings, both sides cite a 1990s lawsuit brought by the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club after law enforcement officials killed three dogs while executing a warrant. The case, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court, ended in 2006 when Santa Clara County and the city of San Jose settled separately for over $1.8 million combined.
Aguaristi’s lawyer says the Hells Angels case shows the killing of a dog is recognized as a seizure under the Fourth Amendment and that the Merced officers didn’t do enough to prevent the dog’s death.
The defendants argue the facts of the May 2018 incident are miles apart from the Hells Angels case, where the officers left dead dogs and damaged property during the search. Matzkind says the Merced officers “demonstrated reasonableness” and should be immune to the Fourth Amendment causes of action.
“The sparse facts set forth a scenario where the individual defendants planned, attempted to use a lesser form of force, then had to make a split-second decision – exactly what qualified immunity is designed to protect,” Matzkind argues in court papers.
Nontheless, Judge Drozd has allowed most of Aguaristi’s case to proceed.
“Assuming all the facts alleged to be true, a jury could find that the actions of defendants were outrageous and outside the bounds of what is usually tolerated by civilized society, and intended to inflict emotional distress” Drozd said in his 20-page order.
Whether the killing was malicious or not, Sweeney says the Merced officials have yet to issue an apology.
“In my opinion, they know they messed up but are continuing to put up a fight. It’s unfortunate; they could probably settle for a reasonable amount, but they want to keep denying Aguaristi.”