South Carolina K-9 units protected under new law
A new South Carolina law will protect police K-9 units from liabilities in court.
Until last month, a suspect bitten by a police dog, regardless of the situation, could almost certainly expect a settlement, Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin (R-Pickens), the bill’s sponsor, told the Greenville News.
According to State Statute 47-3-110, "whenever any person is bitten or otherwise attacked by a dog while the person is in a public place or is lawfully in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog or other person having the dog in his care or keeping, the owner of the dog or other person having the dog in his care or keeping is liable for the damages suffered by the person bitten or otherwise attacked."
This legislation applied to both private citizens' pets as well as K-9 officers, according to the paper.
South Carolina’s old liability statute for dog bites made exceptions if a person bitten was trespassing or had directly harassed a dog, according to the report.
Under the old law, “If a suspect turned on an officer making an arrest, and the dog bit the suspect, then there would be liability for the dog bite,” Martin told the Greenville News. "When I realized that and just how one-sided existing law was, I felt we needed to change it.”
Signed into law June 12 by Gov. Nikki Haley, the new legislation makes an exception for certified, on duty police dogs responding to lawful commands or otherwise acting in accordance with their training. Both dog and handler must follow policy and may not use excessive force, the paper reports.
The proposal for the exemption was first introduced to the house in Feb. 2011, but died last year. Moore told the Greenville News he believes the bill gained no traction due to legislators wishing to leave the issue up to courts. “But if were waiting for the court to determine no liability, we’ll be waiting forever,” Moore told the paper. “They never go to trial. They simply settle with the plaintiff who wants a check.”
However, according to the Greenville News, it is unclear how often police departments are sued for dog bites.
Moore told the paper he heard of a recent settlement that paid a prisoner bitten by a K-9 unit $300,000, but could give no specifics. But several of the state's police forces contacted by the Associated Press could not recall such a case.
The state’s Insurance Reserve Fund, which pays premiums that cover property damage and tort liabilities, has 20 different categories for law enforcement claims, but they are not immediately searchable by such terms as K-9 officer bites, according to the Greenville News.
Moore stressed to the paper that the new law does not mean K-9 units can act with impunity. Someone bitten by a police dog can still sue – and collect compensation if the dog acted inappropriately.
“At least now we have the ability to go into a courtroom when we’re sued over a dog bite and have a defense, where there was no defense before,” Martin told the Greenville News. “The dog is nothing more than another tool. An officer may have a Taser or Mace. If he abuses any of these, he can get sued. A dog is no different.”
According to the AP, 14 states and the District of Columbia already provide liability exceptions for injuries caused by military or police dogs in the call of duty.