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Woman Injured in Meth Arrest Can Sue Sheriffs

(CN) - A woman who was disfigured by a police dog after resisting arrest in Encino, Calif., can pursue excessive force claims against San Diego County and the sheriff's department, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.

Kojo, a German shepherd, bit Deborah Hooper on the head as she lay on the ground after a brief struggle with Deputy Kirk Terrell, who arrested her after he found methamphetamine in her car.

After the ordeal, Hooper needed skin grafts to treat her injuries. She also suffered permanent hair loss and was left with disfiguring scars on her scalp.

Hooper was convicted on drug charges and resisting arrest but sought damages against Terrell, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, the county and Sheriff William Kolender under federal and state law.

Terrell found the drugs after detaining Hooper on suspicion of shoplifting from a drug store, and the struggle began when Hooper moved her hand away after the officer grabbed her wrist. Hooper ended up pinned to the ground, jerking from side to side beneath Terrell who was holding Hooper's hands behind her back. Hooper claimed Terrell called Kojo after she had already stopped struggling.

The trial court ruled that Hooper's claims were barred under state law because of her conviction for resisting arrest, but the federal appeals panel in Pasadena ruled unanimously to reverse that decision.

Hooper can sue because her conviction and excessive force claim are "based on different actions during 'one continuous transaction,'" Judge William Fletcher wrote for the court's three-judge panel, quoting a California Supreme Court ruling.

The state's high court found in Heck v. Humphrey that a successful excessive force claim could overturn a conviction or sentence, but Fletcher wrote that Hooper's conviction would still stand if she proves the use of the dog constituted excessive force.

Such a finding would not negate the lawfulness of Hooper's arrest or the unlawfulness of her attempts to resist arrest, Fletcher added, remanding the case for reconsideration of Hooper's excessive force action under California law.

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