Jury clears Lakewood officer, K-9 partner in rights case
Lakewood police successfully argued that the officer had probable cause to arrest the suspect in a domestic-abuse incident, and that he had warned the man he would release his police dog unless he surrendered.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A federal jury has found that a Lakewood police officer and his K-9 partner did not violate the civil rights of a domestic-abuse suspect whose leg was mangled by the dog during his arrest.
The verdict Friday came after an eight-day trial before U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton in Tacoma, who had earlier found there was enough evidence that Officer James Syler had used excessive force when he deployed his dog, Astor, to apprehend Noel Saldana after Saldana’s wife had called police in June 2010. Saldana had sued the Lakewood police and Syler.
Lakewood had argued that Syler was responding to a report of a crime and, based on statement’s by Saldana’s wife, believed he had cause to arrest him.
In court documents and in an interview earlier this year with The Seattle Times, the 27-year-old Saldana admitted he was intoxicated when he went to his estranged wife’s house and forced his way in, wanting to say good night to his children. His wife was not injured, but she called police after he left and the officers determined they had cause to arrest him for residential burglary. She was a plaintiff in the lawsuit as well.
Saldana said he was urinating in some bushes several blocks away when he heard a “loud voice telling me to get down.”
“I did exactly as I was told,” he said, but Astor bit into his leg.
The attack lasted only a few seconds, but the animal tore out a fist-size piece of his calf, rending ligaments and gristle, Saldana said in an interview. Saldana said the sound was “like tearing a chicken into pieces.”
Saldana has said the officer repeatedly told the dog: “Get him, boy! Get him, boy!”
Saldana was arrested on charges of felony burglary and was booked into jail after spending 10 days in the hospital. He was never charged with a crime.
In court pleadings, the city argued that the law allows officers to make “reasonable mistakes” that do not rise to the level of constitutional violations. During the trial, the city and Saldana filed a joint notice that Lakewood had paid $42,129.73 toward Saldana’s medical bills of $134,134.77, and that the hospital and providers consider the bill paid in full.
In seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed, Lakewood underscored the extensive training that Syler and Astor have completed — Syler is an assistant trainer for the Washington State Police Canine Association — and that every time the dog was used to apprehend a suspect, a report was written and reviewed by Syler’s supervisors.
In a statement after the trial, Stewart Estes, one of the attorneys representing the city and Syler, said the city was able to show that Syler verbally warned Saldana that he was going to release Astor and that he would be bitten unless he surrendered, and that Saldana acknowledged he heard the warning.
He also said evidence suggested Saldana may have held onto the bushes while Astor was trying to pull him out, aggravating the injury.
Steve Reich, one of Saldana’s attorneys, acknowledged that the defense raised some questions about Saldana’s version of events, particularly about whether he had been hiding in the bushes.
“Still, I think you only have to look at the grotesque injuries he suffered to conclude that this was excessive force,” regardless of the verdict, he said. “It’s just unfortunate that Mr. Saldana will not get any justice for it.”
Astor has been the subject of four lawsuits in the past four years, all by individuals who suffered “slashing” injuries similar to Saldana’s, according to court records and data obtained by The Seattle Times.
Estes said Friday that Astor was recently retired due to health issues.
Saldana’s injuries and those of another man bitten by Astor, Chad Boyles, were detailed in a Seattle Times review of five years of K-9 bite data from more than 100 cities and counties published in March. The review showed that at least 17 people claimed they were mistakenly attacked by police dogs from Western Washington law-enforcement agencies.
Boyle’s civil-rights lawsuit, alleging Astor attacked him on a late-night walk while police were searching for someone else, is pending before another federal judge in Tacoma.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org