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 during his arrest.
The verdict came after an eight-day trial before U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton in Tacoma, who earlier had 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 the police in June 2010. The judge also said a jury should consider whether the city deserves to be held liable for not properly monitoring and training the dog team, since Astor had been involved in several other serious bite incidents.
Lakewood argued that Syler was responding to a report of a crime and, based on statement’s by Saldana’s wife, believed he had good reason to make the arrest.
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. Mrs. Saldana was not injured, but she called the police after he left, and the officers determined they had cause to arrest him for residential burglary. Mrs. Saldana 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 tore 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 suspicion 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.
Stewart Estes, one of the attorneys representing the city and Syler, said Friday that Astor was recently retired due to health issues.
Saldana’s attorneys did not immediately comment on the verdict.
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.
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 said they were mistakenly attacked by police dogs of Western Washington law-enforcement agencies.
Boyles’ civil-rights lawsuit, alleging Astor attacked him on a late-night walk while police were searching for a someone else, is pending before another federal judge in Tacoma.