By Eric Freedman
Capital News Service
The owners of a dog shot and seriously wounded by a Michigan Corrections Department investigator can sue the state for emotional distress and mental anguish damages under federal civil rights law, a judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain rejected the state’s argument that the owners, Erica Moreno and Katti Putman, would be entitled only to economic damages if they prove that the investigator acted unconstitutionally.
The investigator, Ronald Hughes, several state troopers and a Flint police officer on a multiagency team went to the wrong house in Flint while searching for a fugitive in June 2014, according to court documents. They had an arrest warrant for the fugitive.
Hughes mistakenly went into the backyard of the fugitive’s next-door neighbors, where he saw 58-pound Clohe, a 15-year-old pit bull mix, coming out the door and shot her in the face, the decision said.
Clohe is “a friendly family dog who gets along with her neighbors and never has attacked or bitten anyone,” the suit contends.
Trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 16 in federal court in Detroit.
In his decision, Drain said, “Clohe lost a portion of her tongue and a tooth and endured three surgeries to repair damage suffered as a result.”
The state denies any wrongdoing and counters that Hughes shot the dog in self-defense.
The internal affairs division of the Corrections Department reviewed the incident but the results of the inquiry are confidential, according to department public information officer Chris Gautz.
Clohe’s owners, Erica Moreno and Katti Putnam, filed a civil rights suit, claiming Hughes violated the 4th Amendment constitutional guarantee against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Shooting Clohe was an illegal “seizure” of their dog, the suit contends. “In sum, Hughes went to the wrong house to execute an arrest warrant and shot the dog without any reasonable basis for doing so.”
Shooting the dog “was objectively unreasonable because Clohe was not barking or making any threatening gesture towards Hughes,” it said.
The attorney general’s office asked Drain to disallow so-called “noneconomic damages” and limit any jury award to the difference between what Clohe is worth now and what she would have been worth if she hadn’t been shot.
Christopher Olson, a Royal Oak lawyer representing Moreno and Putnam, said the state argued that it’s a property damage case but, in fact, it’s a constitutional violation case.
Emotional distress damages “naturally flow in any case in which a cop shoots your dog in the face,” Olson said. “Most people who’ve ever owned a dog treat it as a family member.”
Rejecting the state’s argument, Drain noted that courts recognize that some people “think of dogs solely in terms of an emotional relationship, rather than a property relationship” and that “the bond between a dog owner and his pet can be strong and enduring.”
Drain said, “Prohibiting recovery for emotional damages stemming from the loss of, or harm to, an animal caused by a constitutional violation would conflict with the compensatory and deterrence aims” of federal civil rights law.
Drain also ruled that the jury can award Moreno and Putman punitive damages if they prove at trial that Hughes acted unconstitutionally.