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Police Who Shot Dog in Front of Kid Will Pay Up

MANHATTAN (CN) - Unlike a federal jury, the 2nd Circuit had no taste for the defense given by Hartford, Conn., police for shooting a family's St. Bernard at close range near a 12-year-old girl.

"Undisputed" evidence shows that police trampled on the family's rights, the 42-page amended opinion filed Monday states.

The reversal comes two years after a jury cleared officers Johnmichael O'Hare and Anthony Pia of civil-rights violations related to their Dec. 20, 2006, warrantless entry through the front gate of the home where Glenn Harris lived with his girlfriend; his daughter, identified in the opinion as "K;" and his St. Bernards, Seven and Deuce.

Writing for the three-judge appellate panel, Judge Rosemary Pooler did not skimp on the family imagery.

"The house had a front yard and backyard, which the family used for cookouts, playing with the dogs and hanging out together and with friends," Pooler wrote. "During the summer, plaintiffs would have pool parties and water fights with a blow-up pool they set up."

Police descended on the house that fateful December day soon after a paroled gang member was caught nearby dropping off heroin.

Knowing that "he was in a bind," the parolee told his arresting officer that "he could get [them] some guns," the opinion states (brackets in original).

The "tipster" said there were guns in an abandoned gray Nissan Maxima that they would find in back yard of the house that ultimately belonged to the Harris family.

O'Hare and Piia found the house surrounded entirely by a chain link fence and had a "Beware of Dog" sign in the house, but there was no abandoned Maxima nor any guns in the yard.

"The officers did not go up to the front door to knock and explain their presence, nor did they look to the front door, or notice the 'Beware of Dog' sign," Pooler wrote. "They did not look to see if a grey Nissan Maxima was parked in the driveway. They also did not drive on a parallel street to check if they could see anything in the backyard from the street. Once they entered the property, the officers did not see any abandoned vehicles. In fact, although it is undisputed that Harris's SUV was in the driveway at the time, O'Hare testified that he did not recall seeing any vehicles on the property."

Pia had a two-handed grip on his gun when he allegedly heard Seven, one of the Harris family's two St. Bernards, growl.

"O'Hare then fired three shots at the dog at point-blank range," the opinion states. "After shooting the dog, O'Hare saw K."

The jurors who cleared the officers after six-day considered the so-called "exigent circumstances" in the officers' favor, but Pooler and her colleagues said "insufficient evidence" existed to apply this exception.

Rejecting police claims of immunity, the panel found that the family's Fourth Amendment rights were violated, and set a trial to determine how much damages the family is owed.

The family's attorney, Jon Schoenhorn, called it "distressing" that Hartford lawyers had argued that "expectations of privacy are lower for urban home owners than suburbanites."

"The officers had no warrant, and there was no emergency, when O'Hare executed the family pet," Schoenhorn said in an email. "Moreover, the child's stepmother was in the house, and the officers did not even have the decency to knock on the door to seek permission to look around the backyard. Of course there was no basis for the 'tip' and the officers testified that they did not bother applying for a warrant because they 'didn't need one.' The 2nd Circuit opinion sets forth clearly and unequivocally that the fourth amendment protects all homeowners from warrantless invasion."

Before it was amended Monday, the ruling was originally published on Oct. 30.

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