Putman v. Harris, 2023 WL 2994158 (4th Cir. 2023)
Kandi Putman called police after receiving texts from her husband, Dillard Putman, threatening self-harm and suicide. One message stated he had “a gun in his mouth” and warned Kandi not to “come to the house. I’d rather someone else find me.” Kandi went home, but Putman wasn’t there. Kandi showed the responding officers Putman’s messages and told them Putman regularly drank alcohol and owned several firearms, though she did not know if Putman had a gun with him. Officers didn’t find Putman in the house, though they did find a rifle.
A police service dog team arrived to search the nearby woods. A cover officer armed with a rifle and TASER® accompanied the dog handler. Both knew Putman had threatened suicide and claimed to have put a gun in his mouth. The dog quickly caught Putman’s scent and led the officers to a shallow ditch next to an uprooted tree. Putman was in the ditch. The officers did not see any weapons in his hands or near him. But they did smell alcohol and saw empty beer cans around Putman.
The cover officer pointed his rifle at Putman, ordering him to stand and raise his hands. The dog was on a leash and was barking. Putman replied, “Hands up for what? This is my property! I’m not getting up. I live here.” The officers continued to command Putman to get up and show his hands. The handler asked, “Do you want to get dog bit?” Putman got up but refused to “face away” as commanded. The cover officer lowered his rifle and aimed his TASER device.
After several minutes of arguing, the handler released the dog. The dog bit into Putman’s shirt but did not bite Putman. Putman fell back to the ground; the cover officer jumped onto Putman and tried to apply handcuffs. When Putman resisted, the cover officer fired his TASER. Putman again fell to the ground. At that moment, the handler again released the dog. This time, the dog bit Putman on the arm for approximately 30 seconds.
The officers’ reasonable belief Putman could have been armed, coupled with his refusal to obey their commands to turn away, justified the use of the dog.
Putman sued. The trial court denied the K-9 officer’s request for qualified immunity, ruling the undisputed facts didn’t establish whether the officer had a reasonable belief Putman was armed. The trial court noted the officers never actually saw a gun on Putman during the encounter.
The court of appeals reversed the denial of qualified immunity to the K-9 officer on the excessive force claim. The court stated that a proper inquiry demands more than the trial court’s narrow focus on the body worn camera recording: “The bodycam footage doesn’t tell the whole story, compelling as it may be.” The officers knew about the texts threatening suicide and Putman’s claim he had a gun. Because Putman refused the officers’ commands to turn around, they could not know whether he had a gun hidden in his waistband or elsewhere. “We conclude a reasonable officer could have believed Putman was armed and thus posed an immediate threat.”
The officers’ reasonable belief Putman could have been armed, coupled with his refusal to obey their commands to turn away, justified the use of the dog. “Our decision is based on the totality of the circumstances. The result might well be different had Putman remained stationary or kept his hands away from his waistband. But Putman’s text conveying he was armed, combined with his aggressive and unpredictable behavior, reasonably suggested he was an immediate threat.”
Query: What would you have done? Would you have considered leaving once you learned Putman was alone in the woods and had not actively threatened his wife or anyone else?