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Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Legal Fees Reversal in Strange Dog-Bite Case

WASHINGTON (CN) - Though her suit failed, a woman who unsuccessfully sued police after a canine unit attacked her need not pay attorneys' fees, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Melene James had a blood alcohol content of 0.27 - more than three times the legal limit to drive - when police found her inside a Boise, Idaho, dental office that had its window shattered.

It was Dec. 26, 2010, and James had been using a corner of the dental lab all year to make orthodontic appliances for her own business.

As she explained it, James had been doing an emergency denture repair for a neighbor that afternoon when stepped out for a cigarette and locked herself out.

With her phone locked in the building with her keys, James tried to open a basement window she thought might be unlocked, but she broke it.

She entered through the broken window to shut down the equipment she had left running, and then steeled herself to report the broken window to the man letting her use the basement laboratory.

James said she found the malt liquor in the refrigerator, began drinking and finished up the dentures.

The police meanwhile got a call from a neighbor who saw James entering through the window.

Officers who arrived at the scene at about 5:30 claimed that she was carrying the malt beverage in one hand and what appeared to be a knife in the other.

One of the dentists who owned the building arrived at the scene, as did a cleaning lady. Though the cleaning lady told the police that a woman worked in the building, the dentist said the building was supposed to be empty.

An officer paired with a canine unit arrived at 6 too was reported as a burglary in progress.

Six officers plus the dog eventually entered the building to apprehend the suspect. They allegedly called out into the basement several times, and say they warned that they would release the dog next.

After the handler released the dog and heard barking, he gave the dog the command to bite, and James began screaming thereafter.

The officers soon found James lying on the bathroom floor with her pants down and the dog biting her right arm.

James said she never heard the officers' announcements or the dog's barking,

She sued the city of Boise, two police officers and two police sergeants, but the Ada County District Court granted the defendants summary judgment.

James petitioned for certiorari when the Idaho Supreme Court affirmed and awarded attorneys' fees to the city.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court summarily reversed. It said the state court failed to follow precedent that would have it award fees only if "the plaintiff's action was frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation."

"As Justice Story explained 200 years ago, if state courts were permitted to disregard this court's rulings on federal law, 'the laws, the treaties, and the constitution of the United States would be different in different states, and might, perhaps, never have precisely the same construction, obligation, or efficacy, in any two states,'" the ruling states. "'The public mischiefs that would attend such a state of things would be truly deplorable.'

"The Idaho Supreme Court, like any other state or federal court, is bound by this court's interpretation of federal law," the ruling continues. "The state court erred in concluding otherwise. The judgment of the Idaho Supreme Court is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion."

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