There have been no shortage of lawsuits filed in Colorado of late that claim excessive police force, with most of them, including those put forward by the families of the late Ryan Ronquillo and Joseph Valverde, involving guns.
In contrast, the complaint pressed by Jeffrey Tomlinson focuses on a different and more unusual kind of potentially deadly weapon: a police dog.
"Turning a dog loose on a human when there are other options available is excessive," says attorney David Lane, who's representing Tomlinson. "Police were no more justified in siccing a dog on Mr. Tomlinson than they would have been in shooting him."
The lawsuit, which names Florence police sergeant Sean Humphrey and Michael De Laurentis, the community's police chief, is on view below in its entirety. So, too, are photos of the wounds Tomlinson received in the incident. Warning: The images may be disturbing to some readers.
At around 2:10 p.m. on October 30, 2014, according to the suit, the then-44-year-old Tomlinson, who's described as standing 5' 4" and weighing 110 pounds, was driving on East Main Street in Florence with two passengers when he failed to properly signal a right turn, prompting De Laurentis to conduct a traffic stop.
Tomlinson pulled over as directed and was asked to show his driver's license, the suit's narrative maintains. That turned out to be a problem, because his license had been canceled. At that point, De Laurentis searched Tomlinson's vehicle and his person, finding a small pocket knife and a glass pipe in the process. He placed both items on the top of the car.
After these discoveries, the suit goes on, Tomlinson pleaded with De Laurentis not to charge him with a drug crime. The chief said he wouldn't do so if the pipe showed no evidence of drug residue. But this pledge apparently didn't fill Tomlinson with relief; he reached for the pipe, prompting De Laurentis to seize his arm and tell him that he was under arrest.
In response, Tomlinson took off running, and De Laurentis gave chase, joined by two other colleagues, officers Byron Cline and Michael Gordon. Cline subsequently shot Tomlinson with a Taser, but the device had no effect; one of its prongs got stuck in Tomlinson's jean jacket.
With Tomlinson still on the loose, Sergeant Humphrey was called for backup — and he brought with him his police service dog, Faraon, characterized in the suit as "a powerful, highly trained Belgian Malinois with a massive head and muscular build — the same breed of dog used by U.S. Secret Service Agents to guard the White House."
The suspect was spotted again behind the Best Car Wash on East Main, and the chase continued across the street to the parking lot of Chaps Patio Bar and Grill, where even more officers had congregated; the lawsuit estimates their number at as many as twelve, including Sergeant Humphrey.
With the cops closing in, Tomlinson is said to have taken refuge behind a car in the Chaps lot and was trying to hide under it when Humphrey ordered the dog to attack; the suit says the command sounded like "SHAH!"
Faraon reacted by chomping into Tomlinson's upper back and right shoulder while taking him down to the ground, where the suit argues that he could have been handcuffed and taken into custody. Instead, Sergeant Humphrey allegedly said "SHAH!" again, causing the dog to bite Tomlinson's rib cage and bicep, and a third time, resulting in injuries to his shin, before finally ordering him to release his bite.
Here's one photo of Tomlinson's injuries....
...and a second....
...and a third:
Lane acknowledges Tomlinson's behavior probably won't generate a great deal of sympathy.
"At first glance, you think, 'That's what happens when you run from the cops,'" he says. "But the police are in control of the situation. They have him completely surrounded. He can't get away, and they had other options and alternatives available to them that didn't involve excessive force. They could have threatened him with a little pepper spray to get him out. But instead, they sicced a dog on him that was going to do possibly permanent damage to him — and that's excessive."
Police actions in such scenarios are directed by what Lane calls "a use-of-force continuum, where the lowest level of force is known as command presence and the highest level is deadly force. They're allowed to use just enough force to get the job done, but anything over and above that is excessive. Reaching under the car and tasing him on the leg, for example, would not have been excessive. But putting a dog on him was, and this is something I'm seeing with increasing frequency — the police use of dogs in situations that are not threatening. And dogs can end up maiming and crippling people; that's what they're trained to do. And for a completely low-level infraction like this, that kind of force is simply wrong."
The dog, Faraon, was a beloved member of the Florence police force — so much so that when he died in March 2015 from an allergic reaction to medication, the department held a memorial in his honor that was previewed by the Canon City Daily Record. But Lane contends that the dog was misused in this instance.
"People are not used to hearing stories about police siccing dogs on people," he allows, "but the fact is, anyone who's ever seen somebody get mauled by a large, vicious dog understands how serious that use of force can be. And to use that kind of force on a guy hiding under a car after being pulled over for not signaling a right turn is basically sport for the police. That's all it is."
He adds: "I understand the public's general philosophy will be, 'Too bad for him.' But not every illegal action should result in a potentially fatal encounter with police."
Here's the Tomlinson suit.
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