(CN) - Immunity does not shield Las Vegas cops who held several teenagers at gunpoint without a warrant and shot the family dog in the face, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.
The federal appeals court denied qualified immunity to Sgt. Jay Roberts, officer Michael Dunn and others with the Las Vegas Police Department for a 2009 incident during which they arrested three Hispanic teenagers in their own home and killed a pit bull named Hazel.
The trouble began with a 911 tip from a neighbor of Jesus Rodriguez Sandoval and his wife, Adriana Rodriguez. Along with their son Henry Rodriguez and daughter Kenya Rodriguez, the family is described in the decision published Tuesday as the Sandovals.
The tipster, wary of a recent spate of home burglaries, told police that he had seen two 18-to-20-year-old white males jumping fences and looking through windows.
Roberts arrived in the neighborhood and, looking through the Sandovals' window, saw three Hispanic males - Henry Rodriguez, then 18; Jordhy Leal, then 16; and David Madueno, then 15 - playing video games, watching TV and listening to music.
"Roberts did not ask the boys any basic identifying questions," according to the 9th Circuit's summary of the case. "Instead, Roberts pointed his gun at the head of one of the boys through the bedroom window, and gave the boys conflicting commands, telling them 'don't move,' '[l]et me see your hands,' and 'turn the music down.' Roberts told Jordhy to turn down the music, which Jordhy tried to do, and then told him, 'I told you don't move, I could shoot you' or 'I'll f***ing shoot you.'" (Brackets in original.)
While Roberts held the boys at gunpoint, officer Dunn entered the house. He said later that a change in the tone of Roberts' voice had convinced him that he needed backup.
Roberts then ordered the boys out of the bedroom, and refused to let Henry put away Hazel.
"As the boys exited the bedroom, Hazel slipped in front of Henry and Jordhy, but continued to walk behind David, according to David's testimony," the appellate court said. "Dunn shot Hazel in the face, twelve inches from David, and in the direction of Henry and Jordhy. The officers ordered David and Jordhy to the floor, handcuffed them, and brought them outside. Henry was ordered outside, but was not cuffed until later, as he was carrying Hazel, who was bleeding to death."
When Henry asked an officer to call the animal hospital, the officer said, "if you don't shut the f*** up, I'm going to let your dog die right there," according to the ruling.
Jesus Sandoval and 12-year-old daughter Kenya arrived home to find the boys on his front lawn. Henry was covered in blood, but when Sandoval moved toward him, police grabbed the father and handcuffed him. The officers allegedly treated Sandoval roughly despite his warning that he had recently had major back surgery.
They eventually left the scene without charging anyone with a crime, and "Dunn admitted that if he or Roberts had asked basic identifying questions, the entire incident would not have happened," according to the ruling.
The Sandovals and the parents of the two other boys alleged, among other things, excessive force and unlawful entry in a federal lawsuit against the police department, Clark County, Nev., and the five individual officers.
U.S. District Judge Robert Clive Jones dismissed the claims based on qualified immunity, but a unanimous appellate panel reversed on Tuesday.
Dunn's reason for entering the home without a warrant seemed suspect to the court.
"The officers gathered no information to suggest that the boys were on the premises illegally," Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote for the three-judge panel. "Indeed, neither the physical signs at the scene nor the boys' behavior - sitting on a bed, watching television, listening to music, and playing video games-was consistent with a burglary in progress. In fact, the officers observed open doors and open windows which they described as consistent with residential use. The officers had no basis, either at the moment they breached the curtilage or at the moment Dunn entered the house, to conclude that the boys had violated any laws."
There is also considerable evidence that the officers used undue force, the panel concluded.
McKeown added: "Taken in the light most favorable to the Sandovals, the evidence reflects that the boys complied with the officers' commands at all times; that the officers detained Henry despite what they concede was his full compliance outside the house and despite their knowledge that he had committed no crime; and that, by the time Sandoval returned home, the officers knew or had come to assume that Henry lived in the home and that none of the boys had been in the house illegally."
Remanding the case to Las Vegas, the panel reversed the lower court's grant of summary judgment on the plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment claims for excessive force and unlawful entry, and on their state-law claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault and battery.