Thursday, November 7, 2002

City May Pay $450,000 for Police Dog Bite

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November 7, 2002
Albuquerque Journal

The city could end up paying more than $400,000 to resolve an excessive force lawsuit brought by a teenager who was bitten by an Albuquerque police dog.

A federal court jury late Tuesday awarded 19-year-old Moriah Smith $50,000 in damages against APD officer Andrew Lehocky after concluding he violated her civil rights when his police dog, Bart, attacked Smith.

That set up a second phase of the trial to determine the city's liability based on APD policies and supervision of police dogs. Smith's attorneys had subpoenaed Mayor Martin Chávez and Police Chief Gil Gallegos to testify.

Just as those proceedings were to begin Wednesday, lawyers for Smith and the city reached a deal and the jury was dismissed.

"We looked at the verdict (against the officer) and the city decided not to appeal it," said Kathryn Levy, an assistant city attorney. She wouldn't elaborate. The city, which was also named in the lawsuit, is responsible for paying the $50,000 against the officer and attorneys fees in the case.

Smith and her lawyers, Brad Hall and Joe Kennedy, called the verdict and resolution a victory.

"The plaintiff believed that police should warn people that they're going to use an attack dog and if they don't warn them they should use a leash or a muzzle because it's a serious level of force," said attorney Brad Hall. "We appreciate the jury figuring out the big picture."

Smith, then 16, was unarmed and hiding from police at a Northeast Heights schoolyard in 1999 when Lehocky unleashed the 80-pound Belgian Malinois to find her. The dog clamped down on Smith's right leg, causing injuries that resulted in three surgeries.

Police were investigating a report that Smith had been seen with a boy who had fired a gun at a group of youths at a nearby park.

According to testimony, no warning was given before the dog was unleashed. Smith later was charged with trespassing on school property.

Lehocky's lawyers argued that Smith was responsible for events that led to the bite. They said Lehocky acted reasonably in unleashing the dog to find a suspect who possibly was armed and dangerous.

Smith testified that she would have surrendered had she been warned. Because they prevailed on the civil rights claim, Smith's lawyers were entitled to reasonable attorney fees and costs. The agreement allows an arbitrator to determine the amount the city will pay Smith's lawyers.

Kennedy said the total price tag — including the $50,000 for Smith — could run as high as $450,000.

As part of the deal, APD Chief Gallegos and Schultz agreed to review APD policies on when and how police dogs are deployed, Hall said.

"We have confidence that they'll take us seriously," said Kennedy.

Smith said she will now have money to pay for plastic surgery on the deep scar the bite left.

"It wasn't (about getting) the money for me," said Smith, who now lives in Pennsylvania. "It was the moral of the whole situation. These dogs shouldn't be allowed to bite people."

As part of the agreement, an official judgment against Lehocky won't be entered in court records.

"In a future case (such a judgment) could have been used by another lawyer against Lehocky," said the officer's attorney Luis Robles.

Lehocky still faces three other dog bite lawsuits, Robles said.

Robles said his client was "very disappointed" by the jury verdict at the conclusion of the four-day trial.

"I see it as a compromise verdict," Robles said, noting that the jury gave Smith nothing for pain and suffering and awarded no punitive damages.

Robles said Smith's plastic surgeon testified that surgery to reduce the scar would cost about $50,000.

"I would have thought that if they thought Officer Lehocky did something he shouldn't have, they would have given her more than just the money to fix her scar," Robles said.

Jury verdicts in dog bite cases nationwide have tended to favor the police, experts say.

Earlier this year, Lehocky was exonerated in two lawsuits involving police dog bites. In 2000, the city settled a dog bite claim against him for $210,000.

That led to Lehocky, a 20-year-veteran, transferring from the dog unit to the SWAT team. A year earlier, he received an award from then-Police Chief Jerry Galvin for stellar work in the K-9 unit.

Kennedy and Hall on Wednesday had planned to introduce evidence of prior injuries caused by police dogs, how police review such cases, and APD police dogs' failure to guard and bark as trained.

City Attorney Bob White said the agreement didn't conflict with the mayor's policy against settling civil rights cases filed against APD.

He said Chávez never meant to imply the city would appeal all jury verdicts against the police. The no-settlement rule, he said, applies to pre-trial settlements. Chávez instituted the settlement ban in January, saying allegations of misconduct should be aired publicly and not behind closed doors by lawyers.

Tuesday, July 2, 2002

Sandoval County Deputy Guilty of Battery

By Chris Vogel, Journal Staff Writer

A Sandoval County Sheriff's deputy has been acquitted of charges of attempted criminal sexual penetration and false imprisonment.
But Clinton Weatherspoon, 33, was found guilty Friday of misdemeanor battery and will be placed on leave without pay.
Charges against Weatherspoon stemmed from a December 2000 incident in which his ex-girlfriend — also the mother of his child — had told neighbors and police that Weatherspoon had assaulted her and tried to have sex with her, police reports said.
But the reports said statements from the victim, who lives in Albuquerque, were contradictory and said she did not want to aid in the prosecution of Weatherspoon.
"We're pleased with the conviction on the battery charge," Assistant 2nd Judicial District Attorney Antonio Maestas said. "The victim did not want to prosecute, and when she took the stand she recanted her original story. But the facts presented contradicted her recantation, and the jury convicted him."
The trial was held in 2nd Judicial District Court.
Weatherspoon's attorney, Timothy Padilla, said, "Our defense was he didn't do it, that it just didn't happen. I think he should have been acquitted on everything."
According to police reports, Weatherspoon and the victim spoke on the phone on Dec. 26, 2000, and agreed to meet to discuss child support.
In an initial statement made to Albuquerque police officer Cecil Knox, the victim said that when Weatherspoon arrived he told her he wanted to have sex, police reports said. The victim said that when she refused, Weatherspoon kept her from fleeing by "grabbing her, shutting the door and banging her against the walls of the apartment," reports said.
Weatherspoon was on duty at the time, according to the report.
During a later interview, the victim said she told Weatherspoon, "If you really want to be with me, why don't you tell your girlfriend you're with me?" police reports said.
When Weatherspoon, dressed in his sheriff's uniform, responded that he couldn't tell his girlfriend, the victim said she began grabbing at items on his duty belt, police reports said.
The victim said a magazine of bullets fell from the belt, and the two scrapped on the floor for it, reports said.
She told a neighbor that Weatherspoon tried to have sex with her, but later told police that was not true, reports said.
Police were notified of the incident by the victim's neighbor, who said she heard "banging" from the victim's apartment and a female yelling for help, police reports said.
Also, in a recorded 911 call, the victim said she and Weatherspoon had fought, but she did not want to press charges, police reports said.
Weatherspoon told police that the woman became "hostile" when he said he was still seeing his girlfriend, and she said she was going to tell police he raped and battered her, police reports said. Weatherspoon said he never hit the woman.
"I think the battery conviction was a compromise," Padilla said. "(The jury) said Mr. Weatherspoon may have touched her when he went to get the magazine. She wasn't injured. ... There were just scratches, and she could have gotten those grabbing for his belt."
In terms of the lone battery conviction, Maestas said, "In my opinion, the jurors were convinced that the victim's statements to the 911 operator and to police officers immediately thereafter were closer to the truth than her statements on the witness stand."
Weatherspoon will be sentenced in early August, Maestas said. He faces a maximum of six months in jail.
Sandoval County Sheriff Ray Rivera said Monday afternoon he placed Weatherspoon on administrative leave without pay for a minimum of 30 days. Once Weatherspoon is sentenced, Rivera said, he will re-evaluate the situation.

Sunday, May 26, 2002

Police-Dog Bitings Cost City More Than $940,000

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May 26, 2002

ALBUQUERQUE (AP) — Police dogs have taken a $725,000 bite out of city coffers from payouts to victims of K-9 attacks, and it could rise to $942,000 if defense lawyers get the amount they’ve billed.

Seven APD dog-bite lawsuits are pending in court, including two filed last week, and dozens of citizens who were neither armed nor violent have been bitten, but police say the practice is justified.

Civil rights lawyers disagree.

Moriah Smith, 16, a witness to a shooting incident, says she was crouching behind a row of bushes in a schoolyard when an 80-pound police dog attacked her without warning, biting into her calf and shaking it violently, permanently disfiguring it.

Smith is one of 107 people bitten by APD dogs since 1996, and is among people who have sued the city over those bites.

Officers have claimed in several cases that they allowed their dogs to continue biting suspects for the officers’ own safety. In one case, the Albuquerque Journal reported Sunday, an unarmed suspect was ordered to walk toward an officer with a police dog still attached to her backside.

Sometimes, police dogs have even attacked sleeping people, generally transients, who were not accused of a crime, the newspaper reported.

According to APD policy, dogs can be deployed when a person flees, resists arrest or poses a threat, depending on the severity of the crime.

Police and their lawyers say the people who are bitten often are complicit in their refusal to obey lawful police orders.

‘‘There becomes a point in time where these people have to take responsibility for their own conduct,’’ said Albuquerque attorney Luis Robles, who defends APD officers in court. ‘‘There were a number of times they could have complied with police and they didn’t. There will be consequences, but they brought it upon themselves.’’

On Feb. 26, 1999, police considered Smith a potential felon. After she was attacked, she was arrested for criminal trespass. Her lawyers allege the attack was excessive force. They want the force to curb their dogs, even muzzle them on some searches.

‘‘There’s no reason for dogs to bite people,’’ said Brad Hall, an attorney representing Smith. ‘‘When they unleash the dog they don’t know if it’s going to bite a victim, a suspect or a witness.’’

Nick Bakas, the city’s chief public safety officer, said in the cases he’s aware of, ‘‘I feel comfortable stating that the officers were within police policy and acted appropriately.’’

Police have said Smith must have provoked the dog attack. And they using a dog in that situation defused dangerous circumstances in which officers might have had to use deadly force.

After Smith’s attack, K-9 officer Andrew Lehocky said his supervisor, Sgt. Tom Garduno, told him: ‘‘Good job.’’

Police data show the use of police dogs has escalated since 1996. Dog deployments jumped from 292 in 1996 to 1,449 in 2000, then fell to 1,201 last year.

In 1996, police took someone into custody using a dog 18 times. That rose 97 in 2000. Last year, 71 apprehensions were reported.

A police captain who oversaw the K-9 unit said a year ago that APD was now more likely to muzzle dogs for searches. But deputy chief Ray Schultz testified in a recent deposition that muzzling hasn’t happened and he knew of no plans to do so. Current police operating policy makes no mention of muzzling.

Bakas, who oversees police, fire and corrections for Mayor Martin Chavez, said last week said the department is reviewing K-9 policy.

‘‘We’re looking for accountability and documentation and justification whenever we use dogs, as we would in any use of force situation.’’

A Journal review of APD documents shows many of the people bitten over the past six years have been young and were either hiding or fleeing from police.

‘‘The majority of dog uses are for searches of buildings, and typically those people are unarmed,’’ said Albuquerque attorney Joe Kennedy, who also represents Smith in her lawsuit.

Sometimes police dogs have apprehended violent people fleeing arrest, such as bank robber Byron Shane Chubbuck, who was armed when caught in 1999.

The International Chiefs of Police Association says dog bites have generated a ‘‘near cottage industry’’ for civil litigation.

A large part of the problem has stemmed from ‘‘inappropriate deployment and-or lack of control of canines by their handlers,’’ according to a report last year by the association.

In recent years, the U.S. Justice Department has scrutinized several police departments’ dog units for possible civil rights violations.

Lehocky, by his own personal records, recorded 128 dog bites in his career, a city document shows.

Marlo Marquez, 19, who filed an excessive force lawsuit against the city last year, had been a passenger in a car being chased by police. The car crashed into a wall. She got out and started to run.

Bart bit her leg and buttock, after which Lehocky ordered her to walk over to him — with Bart still hanging on. She was charged with resisting and eluding police.

APD’s policy requires officers to issue a warning: ‘‘This is the APD, come out now or a dog will be used to locate you.’’

But Garduno in a deposition has said officers have discretion not to issue a warning if police safety would be jeopardized.

In the Smith case, Lehocky’s report states only: ‘‘K-9 warnings were not issued due to offender(s) demonstrated their effort to flee/conceal from police, armed with a firearm, and having total disregard for human life.’’