In short, yes. The police and military are allowed to legally use dogs for law enforcement purposes. Typical uses for dogs, also known as “K9 units” include searching for drugs, patrol, and making arrests of fleeing criminals. Although many police and military forces utilize K9 units, and the dogs that are used are certified for use in those respective forces, there are very few guidelines in place for the selection of or training of K9 units.

It is important to note that the laws concerning the use of dogs for law enforcement purposes will differ by state. This means that there is no uniformity from one state to another, or even from one county to another, regarding the way in which police dogs may be utilized. In fact, some state statutes give police and military forces special protection when their dogs inflict injuries on people under certain circumstances.

However, similar to the human police force, K9 units are still subject to the laws that regulate the use of excessive force by the police. Although the exact laws may differ by jurisdiction, the police are forbidden from using excessive force when making an arrest. Additionally, there is also no protection for police or military forces when their K9 units cause injuries outside the scope of proper law enforcement activities.

Thus, if the police misuse their K9 unit, any individual that is harmed by the K9 unit may be able to file a civil lawsuit against the police force based on police brutality and excessive use of force.

What Is Considered Excessive Force?

Similar to how the police force may utilize tasers, guns, or pepper spray in furtherance of their duties, they may also utilize K9 units in furtherance of their police duties. However, the use of the K9 unit must be reasonable under the circumstances.

There are many factors that a court will consider when determining whether or not the use of a K9 unit is excessive and unreasonable including:

  • The type of crime that the victim was suspected of. Was the crime a misdemeanor or felony? For example, if the crime the victim was suspected of was minor, such as a traffic infraction, any use of a K9 unit may be considered excessive. On the other hand, if the victim was suspected of armed robbery, a K9 unit may reasonably be utilized to detain the suspect;
  • Did the police or military force suspect the victim to be armed and dangerous? Similar to the crime suspected, if the victim was suspected of being armed and dangerous the use of K9 force may be reasonable under the circumstances;
  • What kind of injuries did the victim suffer? If the injuries were life threatening then the use of K9 force may be considered excessive;
  • When the K9 unit was being utilized, did the police issue a warning to the victim to surrender? For example, if the victim surrendered and then suffered additional injuries, the use of force may be considered excessive;
  • How long did the K9 unit bite the victim? If the K9 unit repeatedly bit the victim the continuous biting may be considered excessive;
  • Could the police or military force have utilized a different less excessive force in arresting the victim? If the police could have utilized a taser or less forceful tool, the use of the K9 unit may be considered excessive; and/or
  • Was the victim suspected of a crime, or a bystander? If the victim was a bystander not accused of a crime, almost any use of K9 force will likely be deemed excessive.

Can I Sue for Injuries Caused by a Police Dog?

If an individual is bitten by a police dog, and that bite results in injury to that individual, then that individual may be able to bring a case against the police force for the damages suffered in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. Although there are many state statutes concerning liability for owners of dogs or animals that injure others, such statutes will not be applicable to K9 units, as there is an exception to liability for police units.

However, if the person that was bitten was not a suspect of a crime, then they may be able to bring a civil lawsuit against the police for injuries suffered by a K9 unit under the typical dog bite statutes.

Other than bystanders, police dog bite lawsuits that are brought for injuries caused by police dogs are usually brought under the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Once again police are generally forbidden from using unreasonable force when making an arrest. Therefore if the police are found to use excessive force, the police force may be required to compensate the victim. Additionally, in some cases the officers that were in control of the K9 might also be punished.

For example, if the controller of the K9 unit was either negligent in their control of the unit, or caused the K9 unit to utilize excessive force out of malice, they may have to pay punitive damages to the victim. Importantly, federal law allows victims some advantages in filing a lawsuit against a police force, including the ability to obtain attorney’s fees and costs associated with their lawsuit.

Numerous courts have held that officers are allowed to use dogs to bite and hold an individual suspected of committing a crime. Once again, the use of the K9 unit must be reasonable under the circumstances. For example, in one federal case the court held that it was unreasonable for the police to utilize a K9 unit because the officers did not first give the suspect a chance to surrender prior to using the dog.

Another instance where a court found the use of the K9 unit to be unreasonable was when a K9 unit was utilized on a man who had been stopped for a minor traffic violation. In that case, the man suffered severe injuries to his upper leg by the K9 unit as he fled from his vehicle.

What Happens If the Dog Bites Someone Other Than the Suspect?

As discussed above, if a police dog bites an individual other than the suspect of a crime, the police force would then be open to a private civil lawsuit by that individual. This is because when the K9 unit bites someone other than the suspect, that is outside the scope of the police duties, and would remove the protections that are given to police officers acting within the scope of their lawful duties.

In these cases, the dog bite statutes that govern private citizens would become applicable, and the harmed individual could bring a private lawsuit against the police force, and possibly the K9 unit handler.

What Factors May Decide a Police Dog Injury Case?

Once again, excessive force is the main governing factor when liability is being determined for the use of police dogs. As outlined above, excessive force is determined by the actual use of the K9 unit and the resulting injury weighed against the governmental interest in effecting an arrest or narcotics search of an individual suspected of a crime.

If the police dog is determined to have utilized excessive force, such as by meeting one of the factors above, then the victim may be able to receive police dog bite compensation.

Should I Consult An Attorney About Injuries Caused By Police Dogs?

If you have suffered an injury as a result of a police dog, you should immediately contact an experienced criminal law attorney.

An experienced attorney can help evaluate your case, and help you determine whether or not you have an actionable case against the police force or K9 handler. Additionally, an attorney can also initiate a lawsuit on your behalf, and represent you in court, as necessary.