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Washington woman’s lawsuit over Pierce County officer’s K-9 use heads to trial

By Mike Carter, The Seattle Times
Published: February 16, 2024, 10:37am

A federal judge for the fourth time has swept aside Pierce County’s efforts to dismiss a lawsuit from a woman who claims she was mauled by a police dog after deputies talked about “teaching her a lesson.”

U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle issued a sharply worded order last week saying Jenni Ellis’ lawsuit against the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department and K-9-handler Deputy Levi Redding should proceed to trial. The judge refused to dismiss Ellis’ allegations of illegal seizure, excessive force and negligence, saying a jury should decide questions about the deputy’s credibility and actions.

Among those questions: Whether Redding acted in good faith and if he and other deputies planned to use a “police canine for an improper purpose.”

Ellis, now 39, suffered a dog bite that tore flesh and muscle from her upper left arm when Redding allegedly allowed K-9 Zepp to bite and help drag her from beneath a trailer where she had been hiding in a neighbor’s yard, according to court documents and exhibits considered by Settle.

Three deputies had initially responded to the home of Ellis’ boyfriend just before midnight on March 11, 2019, to investigate a report that she had punched her boyfriend in the face after he asked her to move over in bed, according to court pleadings and police reports. When the boyfriend’s teenage son tried to intervene, Ellis allegedly hit him in the face as well. Ellis left the house with a bottle of liquor, and the boyfriend called police.

The pleadings noted that deputies had previously responded to the home to investigate other domestic violence complaints involving an intoxicated Ellis.

According to a sworn deposition given by Ellis’ boyfriend, one of the deputies reportedly talked about “teaching [Ellis] a lesson” before calling the K-9 handler. The county maintains the deputy was talking about taking Ellis to jail, not bringing in a dog to find and bite her.

Settle said that’s a question for a jury to decide.

Redding and Pierce County claim the dog, a German shepherd Redding had attached to a 30-foot tracking lead, “unexpectedly darted out of his handler’s sight” and bit Ellis, who was hiding under a boat trailer.

Redding and other deputies claimed they had called for the dog only to search for Ellis. Redding said he had no intention of allowing the dog to bite her.

Even so, Redding testified that he called out he was going to release a police dog, and Ellis could be bitten if she didn’t reveal herself and surrender. Ellis, who claimed she had been wandering the neighborhood, said she never heard the warning.

The deputies determined they had cause to arrest Ellis on suspicion of misdemeanor domestic violence assault. But the judge, in his ruling, questioned whether calling for a K-9 and exposing Ellis to the possibility of being bitten was an appropriate and proportional response to any threat posed by the unarmed, intoxicated woman who had fled into a rainstorm clad only in slippers and nightwear.

The county has argued that since Redding didn’t intend for the dog to injure Ellis, law enforcement didn’t impinge on her Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. But Settle, in his ruling, pointed out that once the dog had found Ellis, Redding “allowed” the dog to continue biting her until she showed her hands.

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The county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, which is defending the lawsuit, declined to comment on pending litigation.

“Redding’s conduct after he first saw Zepp biting Ellis objectively manifested an intent to have Zepp restrain her,” Settle wrote. “Redding’s argument to the contrary defies reason and common sense.

“It is of no consequence that Redding claims he initially intended for Zepp to merely search for Ellis without biting her. He objectively intended for Zepp to continue restraining Ellis by biting, holding and pulling on her body. This alone amounts to a Fourth Amendment seizure.”

Moreover, the judge noted that Redding’s decision not to immediately command Zepp to stop biting Ellis raises “factual questions” about the deputy’s claim that he didn’t intend for the dog to bite her at all.

“Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Ellis,” which he must do at this stage of the proceedings, the judge found “Zepp continued to bite Ellis for an excessive duration and Redding improperly encouraged the continuation of the attack.”

“There is evidence that Redding allowed Zepp to continue biting Ellis when she neither posed a threat or harm nor attempted to evade or escape,” Settle wrote.

Similarly, the county argued in pleadings that Ellis’ claims of excessive force can’t be supported, again because Redding never intended to use force at all. Yet, Settle pointed out that Redding stated under oath that he believed she posed a potential threat because she was carrying a bottle, and he allowed the dog to keep biting her — even though the initial attack was supposedly an accident — until she showed her hands.

Settle noted that the state’s domestic violence statute mandates an arrest when an assault occurs, but he said the law “does not authorize a police officer to effect an arrest by any means necessary,” adding that a jury should consider whether “under the circumstances, a clear, reasonable, and less intrusive alternative to using a police canine to search for Ellis was to have simply waited for her to return to the residence.”