|Who, age||What||Where||When||Last known address|
|Eric Lee Hall||officers mistakenly shot, killed dog||
|January 1, 2003|
|Shannon Pickard Hall||dispatcher issued a felony stop without merit causing death of a dog||
|January 1, 2003||Nashville, TN|
|Type of Crime||Other Crimes||#/Type of animal(s) involved|
|Not charged||1 55 lb pitbull, boxer mix dog|
The tragedy began when James Smoak of North Carolina left his wallet on top of his car when he filled up with gas in Nashville.
It ended about an hour later, when a Cookeville policeman shot and killed Smoak's dog on a roadside in Putnam County as the handcuffed family looked on.
These two events are connected by the assumption, glaringly false as all involved now admit, that the Smoak's - James, 38 his wife, Pamela, 36 and her 17-year-old son, Brandon Hayden - had been involved in some kind of crime in Nashville.
"It's just one of the durn-dest things I've ever seen. We were handcuffed and thrown into the back of the patrol car,'' said James Smoak, owner of a seafood wholesale company, interviewed by phone from his home in Saluda, N.C.
The incident has spurred internal investigations by both the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the Cookeville Police Department.
"We regret it. Anybody who has ever had a pet knows how horrible it is to lose one, in a situation like this, especially," said Beth Tucker Womack, spokeswoman for the state Department of Safety, of which the highway patrol is an arm.
(Photo courtesy of CNN) Somewhere between Davidson County and the Putnam County line, state troopers in the area were told to make a "felony stop" of the Smoak's' vehicle. A felony stop is one in which the occupants of the vehicle are believed to have been involved in a crime and the driver and passengers are treated as if they are armed and dangerous.
The problem is, the Smoak's had done no wrong. Authorities said a motorist with a cell phone saw James Smoak's wallet fall off his car, $20 bills scattering on the eastbound side of Interstate 40 as the wallet's contents spilled out.
Perhaps the unknown caller believed the wallet was being thrown from the car, but for whatever reason, the caller believed the money falling to the road was suspicious and alerted the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
Someone, who has not been identified, called for a felony stop. "That's one of the things we're looking at, to see how it got to that point,'' Womack said. "Apparently the officer who stopped the car was stopping it as a felony stop based on the information he was given. The investigation is to find out how it got to that point."
For the Smoak's, their three-day getaway to Nashville with his parents and their three children became a trip into the Twilight Zone that left them baffled as to how they were treated and horrified that they witnessed their beloved pet's death.
James Smoak provided this narrative:
The family had come to Nashville, the town where he and his wife had celebrated their honeymoon years earlier. They arrived Monday, staying in a hotel near the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center.
On Tuesday and Wednesday they took in the sights of Nashville. The trip ended with a half-day downtown. About 4 p.m. on the third day, they headed back to Saluda, N.C., a small town about 30 miles south of Asheville, N.C. James stopped to gas up at the Raceway station on Old Hickory Boulevard.
"A gentleman comes up and is carried away with how beautiful my dog is. He's a bull terrier, boxer mix. He had the temperament of Scooby Doo,'' he said.
In showing the dog, named Patton, to the man, Smoak said he became distracted enough to lay his wallet on top of his station wagon.
Minutes later, the family re-entered I-40. Somewhere down the road the wallet fell off.
An hour later, Smoak noticed a state trooper following him.
"I was not speeding, but he was with me everywhere I went. If I went into the left lane, he went into the left lane,'' Smoak said.
In Cookeville, the trooper's car was joined by other troopers and two Cookeville policemen, who were called to assist the felony stop.
"The PA system on the (trooper's) car is blaring these orders to take my right hand and throw the keys out the window, get out of my car with my hands in the air and walk backwards to the back of the car and get on my knees,'' James Smoak recalled.
"Next thing I know, I'm in the back of the patrol car and they commence to do the same thing to my wife and my child."
The doors on the Smoak's car were left open. The family members said they asked repeatedly for the officers to close the doors so Patton and another family dog, a puppy named Cassie, would not get out.
"I'm telling the man to please shut the door. I knew the guys were back there with weapons and I knew if the dog came out I knew what was going to happen,'' he said.
Indeed, Patton exited the car, but what happened after that is a matter of contention.
Cookeville Officer Eric Hall , who shot the dog, reported that the animal was advancing on him at a fast rate and acting in a menacing manner. Hall could not be reached for comment. Cookeville Police Chief Bob Terry answered questions.
"This dog exited the car and circled around to one of the officers and according to the officer he was left with the definite impression that the dog was going to attack him,'' Terry said.
The police chief said an investigation would center on Hall's action.
"One misconception is that we were close enough to close the car doors or keep the dog from getting in and out, when, in fact, that was not (the Cookeville officers') role at that point in time,'' Terry said.
"Their role was to provide cover. Felony stops are very precise the way they are handled because of their very nature. Ordinarily, felony stops involve some dangerous folks."
After spending about an hour handcuffed on the roadside, James Smoak said, the family was released. The carcass of their dead pet was given to them and they spent the night in a Cookeville motel before starting home Thursday.
No charges were filed against any of the Smoak's James Smoak has since gotten his wallet back with the $440 lost on the interstate - he had to drive back from Cookeville to Wilson County to retrieve it from a Tennessee highway patrolman.
Hall was described by Terry as a veteran cop who was usually assigned to the department's Family Protection Unit, which deals with domestic violence and child sex abuse cases. He had recently been temporarily reassigned to a patrol car because of a shortage of help in the department.
"He's one of the mildest-mannered officers we have here. This is just unfortunate,'' he said.
"These folks didn't deserve any of it," Terry said. "If we could roll the clock back and have some hindsight, obviously none of this would have happened."Update 1/9/03: Though apologizing for handcuffing three members of a family and shooting their dog, law enforcement officials said the officers involved acted reasonably. That was a tentative conclusion, however, and subject to further review.
The apologies were accompanied by the release of a Tennessee Highway Patrol videotape that shows the family handcuffed and kneeling on the ground as the dog bounded out of their car - initially with its tail wagging - and ran toward Cookeville police officer Eric Hall .
The video shows Hall rapidly raising his shotgun and firing when the dog's head was only a foot or so from the gun's muzzle, leaving the stunned family sobbing and screaming. The slain dog, named Patton, was part pit bull.
State Safety Commissioner Jerry W. Scott, Highway Patrol Commander Col. Mark Fagan and Cookeville Police Chief Robert Terry said the officers involved followed proper procedures, given the information they had at the time of the New Year's Day "felony stop" on Interstate 40 near Cookeville.
After the initial call at 4:52 p.m. CST, a "be on the lookout" alert was sent out for the vehicle and, shortly afterwards, dispatcher Shannon Pickard in Nashville sent a teletype message to all Middle Tennessee law enforcement offices asking whether there had been any robberies with a large sum of money taken.
Dispatcher Timothy McHood in the Highway Patrol's Cookeville office, after seeing the teletype, put out another alert saying the vehicle was "possibly involved" in a robbery.
Trooper David Bush spotted the station wagon after hearing that alert and asked for help. Trooper Jeff Phann responded and, at the Patrol's request, the Cookeville Police Department sent two officers as "backup" - Hall and Mead McWhorter. Patrol Lt. Jerry Andrews was also sent to the scene.
The family was stopped and treated as if they were potentially dangerous criminals, with Hall and McWhorter standing guard behind the highway patrolmen.
"We at the Tennessee Department of Safety and the Tennessee Highway Patrol would like to convey our deepest sympathy to the Smoak family for the events of Jan. 1," said a statement read at the news conference by Beth Tucker Womack, public information officer.
"Losing a beloved family pet is difficult at any time, but especially under such circumstances as the ones last week."
The Highway Patrol investigation found that the troopers involved "did have probable cause" for a "felony stop," the statement says, but there were questions about the relaying of information to the officers.
Patrol officials are "looking at some of the procedures in our radio room" with an eye toward changes and Fagan will ultimately decide "what, if any, policies and procedures were violated," the statement said.
"We cannot change what happened, but we can work to make sure something like this never happens again," the statement said.
A statement from the Cookeville Police Department, read by Capt. Nathan Honeycutt, said the department's internal investigation had concluded that Hall and McWhorter "performed their duties according to training and policy" - including Hall's "split-second decision to use force."
Still, Terry said he has requested that an independent review of the episode be conducted, probably by a Maryland police agency. Hall has been reassigned to administrative duties pending the outcome of that review.
Scott said that the speed of the Smoak vehicle was a factor in the decision to make a felony stop. He said that, based on the location of the vehicle in Wilson County when first reported by the motorist and its location when spotted by a trooper, the speed was at least 95 mph.
A videotape of a police officer shooting a family's dog after they were mistakenly stopped as felony suspects shows only 3 seconds elapsed from the time the dog left the car until the officer fired.
The dog appeared to be wagging its tail as it ran toward the officer.
The tape, which was recorded at night from a Tennessee Highway Patrol car, shows the dog jump from the car and run toward an officer pointing a shotgun at the vehicle. Cookeville police officer Eric Hall, who killed the dog with a shotgun blast, has contended he had to shoot the dog after it charged him in a threatening manner.
Hall has been reassigned to administrative duties pending an independent review of the incident. The Cookeville Police Department's internal investigation found that Hall did not use excessive force.
The Smoak's have filed complaints with all agencies involved in the stop.
Update 1/10/03: An expert on animal behavior from the Humane Society of the United States said a Jan. 1 traffic stop near Cookeville in which police killed a family's dog shows that officers need more training.
"To us, this just emphasized the greater need for all law enforcement officers to be thoroughly trained in what is and is not an aggressive animal," said Martha Armstrong, the society's senior vice president for companion animals. "When you see a dog approaching with its head up, ears up and tail wagging, this should be an indication that this is a friendly animal."
After the Smoak family was pulled over, they repeatedly told the officers that two dogs, including a mixed pit bull-boxer named Patton, were in the car. They asked the officers to close the door, according to a videotape of the incident shot from a THP cruiser. Moments later, Patton bounded out of the vehicle and trotted toward Cookeville officer Eric Hall , its tail wagging.
Hall backed up quickly and shouted as the dog kept coming toward him, then shot and killed the animal with his shotgun.
In a written incident report filed after the shooting, Hall said it appeared that the dog "singled me out from the other officers and charged toward me, growling (sic) in an aggressive manner. I yelled at the dog to "Get Back" but it attempted to circle me to attack, so I felt I had no other option but to protect myself. I fired once at the dog, instantly putting it down."
Armstrong, however, said that the dog didn't appear to be acting in an aggressive manner. "It's not the best video one can get," Armstrong said, referring to the tape's quality. "But it did not appear to me that the dog was approaching them in an aggressive manner."
The Smoak's have indicated they may file a lawsuit against the two departments, and local attorneys said the family might have legal standing to do so based on the Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Although police have a certain degree of immunity from being sued, Knoxville attorney John Eldridge said he believes a case could be brought alleging the officers violated the family's civil rights. "I would tell them they have a civil rights action against the officer who stopped them for an arrest without probable cause, and for excessive use of force against them and their property," said Eldridge, who has extensive experience litigating civil rights cases.
"The police officials almost always defend on the basis of qualified immunity, meaning they were acting in good faith," Eldridge said. "Of course, that issue would be for a jury to decide."
Attorney Chuck Burks pointed out that a 2000 state law allows dog owners to collect up to $4,000 in damages if the animal is killed intentionally or negligently.
Update 1/12/03: Tennessee Highway Patrol Col. Mark Fagan will decide what punishments, if any, will be meted out to the state troopers connected to the Jan. 1 shooting of a dog on Interstate 40.
Fagan will also determine if policy changes are needed. "The colonel's office is now looking at what, if any, policies or procedures may have been violated and what, if any, disciplinary action is appropriate," said Beth Womack, Tennessee Department of Safety spokeswoman.
Although investigators have pored over all the audio- and videotaped information recorded during the traffic stop and shooting, Womack indicated that at least some conversations were not recorded.
"It was found that some of the communication between dispatchers was made on a Nextel-type two-way instead of a recorded telephone or radio line, therefore cannot be absolutely confirmed," Womack said.
In a written incident report filed after the shooting, Cookeville officer Eric Hall said he asked a dispatcher "what felony had been committed" as he drove to assist troopers but didn't find that out before arriving.
"When asked during our investigation why the passenger door was not closed, Lieutenant (Jerry) Andrews indicated that if he or another officer had moved to that side of the car, he would have been in the line of any potential crossfire," Womack said in a press release. "Remember - at this time, the troopers on the scene were still under the impression that a felony may have been committed and were acting accordingly."
After the shooting, James Smoak tried to stand up but was wrestled _down by troopers. After he was put in a patrol car, he repeatedly asked the officers to get a veterinarian but his requests were ignored. "You all have gone crazy," he said.
Later, after the officers determined the family had committed no crime, they gave Smoak a plastic bag to collect the dog's carcass after he told them to leave his former pet alone. "You've done enough," he said.
After the officers removed the handcuffs from Pamela Smoak, she sank to the ground and cried. "I'm never stepping foot in this state again," she said.
Womack said the state had not offered to compensate the Smoak's for the loss of their pet.
In a written complaint against the officers, Pamela Smoak lashed out at the handling of the initial phone call. "No one ever called in a robbery or any felony!" Smoak wrote. "A felony stop should not have been made. A murder has been committed by the Tennessee Highway Patrol. ... There was a very bad error on someone's part, and we paid for it."
Update 1/14/03: The Cookeville police officer who fatally shot a North Carolina family's pet dog has shot two other dogs since joining the department nearly six years ago, records show.
Officer Eric Hall received permission from the owner of one of the dogs for the canine to be "put down" for public safety, an incident report states.
The owner of the other dog described the animal as "mean" and said he "probably would have done the same thing" when he learned Hall had shot it, according to a report of that incident.
In the first incident of May 28, 1998, Hall responded to a call from a man who reported a neighbor's dog had tried to attack him, according to the report.
The neighbor described the dog as "vicious" and complained that its owner let it run loose and that it had chased him on different occasions, the report states.
Hall saw the dog, which he described in his report as 100 pounds "or so with short yellow hair and a muscular build," after telling the neighbor he would discuss the matter with the dog's owner. He addressed the dog, asking it if it was going to let him "come over there."
"As soon as I said this to the dog, it exploded into a run towards me barking with its ears back," Hall wrote. "I started backing up, yelling at the top of my lungs for the dog to Get Back as I drew my weapon. I was in grave fear of this animal and as it got about 2 feet away from me, feeling like it was going to attack I fired two rounds at it. The dog was knocked off balance yelped and ran back toward its own yard."
Hall and other officers who responded to the scene followed a blood trail in search of the animal, but didn't locate it after more than an hour of searching, the report states.
When he later told the owner what had happened, Hall wrote that the owner said the animal was mean and that he was "thinking of getting rid of it."
"I told (the owner) what had happened, he stated that he probably would have done the same thing," Hall wrote.
In the second incident of March 7, 2001, Hall assisted another officer who had responded to a complaint of an unchained, aggressive black dog, two reports about the incident state.
The dog "charged" Officer Jeremy B. Grimm, "charged" at two children playing nearby and was sprayed with a chemical spray three times before the owner unsuccessfully tried to catch the dog, one report states.
"(The dog's owner) gave us permission to put the animal down for the safety of the public," Grimm wrote.
The owner, according to one report, said animal control had tried for three days to catch the dog. A police supervisor then made the decision to "put the K-9 down."
"I retrieved my 223 cal. patrol rifle and within a few minutes the dog was spotted," Hall wrote. "I evaluated the shot, fired once, instantly putting the K-9 down."
Don Aaron, a spokesman for the Nashville Police Department, said he didn't see any use of force incidents involving Hall during the three years he worked for the department.
Hall joined the department in November 1994 as a police officer trainee, graduated from the police academy in April 1995 and began working as an officer in the patrol division in October 1995 after completing a probation period, Aaron said.
Hall took a leave of absence from May 17, 1997, to August 19, 1997, when he resigned, according to Aaron. The Cookeville Police Department hired Aaron in April 1997, according to records with the city.Update 1/16/03: The Cookeville police officer who shot to death a family's pet dog during a traffic stop Jan. 1 was following proper police procedures if he felt threatened by the animal, a Maryland police chief has written in an independent review of the incident.
However, Mary Ann Viverette, police chief in Gaithersburg, Md., questioned the actions of a Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper who failed to close the door of the station wagon owned by James Smoak, thus allowing the dog, Patton, to jump out of the car. Patton was then shot to death by Cookeville Police Officer Eric Hall as the Smoak family watched.
Viverette deflected much of the blame in the incident toward THP communications errors. THP dispatchers sent officers to stop the Smoak's "The tactics used during the felony traffic stop could be greatly improved,'' she wrote.
The Maryland police chief also noted that the highway patrolmen, who were in charge of the traffic stop, did not clearly state to the Cookeville officers that all occupants of the vehicle were out of the car, and she said that "the trooper should have initiated closing the doors of the vehicle after he approached."
Viverette's review was conducted at the request of Cookeville Police Chief Bob Terry. Terry said he stood behind Hall, who has been put on administrative duties and will not face disciplinary action. "We believe in him, and we believe that he told us the truth," Terry said.
Terry said Viverette was purposely not given access to all documents relating to the case. Neither did she interview Hall, the THP officers or the other Cookeville officer on the scene. "We chose to give Viverette the videotape with a basic background of who the folks were in the video and what our role was," he said. "We wanted her to base a review of that stop on the video the whole world has watched."
Viverette acknowledged that her report was not as thorough as it could have been had she conducted a complete investigation, but concluded, based on what she had been given to study, that if Hall felt threatened with serious bodily harm, "his actions are understandable."
Update 1/16/03: The death of a beloved family dog may have been a tragedy to the James Smoak family, but Tennessee law considers a lost pet to be like livestock - property.
The family may not be entitled to much money in damages if they sue, legal experts say. But if a federal civil rights violation can be shown, requiring a higher standard of proof, the sky's the limit in terms of damages, attorneys say.
The Smoak's, whose dog was shot by a Cookeville, Tenn., police officer on New Year's Day, have said they are shopping for lawyers.
State damages would probably be minimal, said Jim Bilbo, president-elect of the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association. He said the pet would be considered legally as property, so the state's liability might be limited to the fair market value for a mixed-breed bulldog.
Dennis Huffer, a legal consultant for the University of Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service, agreed that state law was written to shield Tennessee and its municipalities from excessive lawsuits, limiting the amount of money the government must pay in damages.
State law limits damages to $300,000 per person for those involved in an accident or death and $1 million per negligence accident for injuries, Huffer said.
A claim could also be made against Cookeville. Its liability limit as a local government would be $85,000 for injury or destruction of property in an accident, he said. "I'm not sure a dog would ever be worth $85,000," Huffer said.
The family might claim that the killing of the dog created some kind of bodily injury for them, he said. However, the liability limit for Cookeville is $250,000 for bodily injury or death to a person and $600,000 for all people involved in an accident. The most the family would be able to receive from Cookeville would be $600,000, he said.
One problem the family may have in a lawsuit is that liability for a local government is based on the notion of negligence of an employee, Huffer said. "I don't think the acts of the police officer in shooting the dog will be considered in most cases to be negligent," he said. "It was a purposeful act on his part to defend himself."
The dog shooting has grabbed international headlines and generated a daily barrage of bad publicity for the state.
The family has two options, Nashville legal scholar David Raybin said. One would be to file a state claim of negligence. The other would be to file a lawsuit in federal court. The family's attorney might do both, he said.
However, to make a federal case, the family would have to show a higher standard of reckless indifference on the part of the government, that the government was not merely negligent but grossly reckless in its behavior, Raybin said.Update 1/18/03: With James Smoak and his wife watching with their lawyers, Tennessee Highway Patrol officials announced the disciplining of a dispatcher for his role in the shooting of their dog.
The announcement came at a three-hour legislative hearing where the truthfulness, compassion and procedures of Highway Patrol troopers and Cookeville police officers involved in the Jan. 1 dog shooting and handcuffing of a Saluda, N.C., family were angrily questioned by lawmakers.
One point of discussion was two prior dog shootings by Cookeville police officer Eric Hall , though Cookeville Police Chief Robert Terry depicted both previous shootings - one in 1998 and another in 2001 - as justified and non-controversial.
State Safety Commissioner Jerry W. Scott also told the ad hoc committee that he is recommending one simple change in official patrol procedures that might have spared the life of the slain dog, Patton - assuring doors are shut as passengers exit a vehicle pulled over in a "felony stop."
The legislative panel, known as the "Ad Hoc Committee on the Smoak's Incident," watched 25 minutes of a THP videotape of the felony stop on Interstate 40 near Cookeville - pausing and rewinding the tape to determine whether one of the patrolman was laughing over the shooting of Patton several minutes afterward.
Scott said later that Trooper David Bush did laugh, but in response to unrelated comments by a dispatcher and not over the shooting of Patton.
Smoak and his wife, Pamela, sat on the front row and wept at times during the proceedings. They were flanked by attorneys Mary Parker of Nashville and George Cone of North Carolina. Parker said a lawsuit will be filed on the family's behalf, though she is still studying the form it will take.
The Smoak's declined to comment to the media after the hearing, but occasionally spoke up spontaneously during the hearing.
Sen. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, who chairs the committee, indicated some skepticism over Scott's explanation for the laughter in comments after Scott had announced discipline imposed on Nashville patrol dispatcher Shannon Pickard, who issued the initial alert that led to the "felony stop" of Smoak. "They could have been saying, 'What a bad dispatcher. He needs a crisis management course.' That would have been funny," Cohen said.
Pickard received a written warning and an order to undergo a course in "crisis management." Highway Patrol Col. Mark V. Fagan said Pickard, who otherwise has had an exemplary record for nine years, violated policy by issuing a "well-intentioned but poorly worded communique." The alert, sent over a teletype system that was not supposed to be used for such purposes, asked for information on robberies possibly involving a car such as one driven by Smoak.
That and subsequent dispatcher communications led the officers involved to believe they were stopping a car possibly involved in a robbery.
Pickard is the only officer to face any discipline over the incident. Terry said Hall had not violated any departmental procedures in the shooting of the dog.
Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, whose district includes the Cookeville area, said Hall and his family have also suffered unfairly from the incident. "His family has been terrorized since then," Burks said. "He had to take his children out of school. There have been death threats."
Cohen and Sen. John Ford, D-Memphis, questioned the honesty of officers involved for portraying the dog as aggressively attacking Hall, who wrote in a report that the dog was growling, barking and "singled me out" for attack. None of that is apparent from the video, Cohen said, though Terry said the video microphone location - on Bush's collar - likely would not have picked up such sounds.
Cohen also questioned whether Hall had a dislike toward dogs or an inclination toward shooting them since he was involved in three of 19 recorded dog shootings by Cookeville police officers since 1995 - including Patton's death. There are 69 officers in the Cookeville police force, said Terry.
The harshest comments came from Ford, who repeatedly characterized the whole affair with words such as "a disgrace" and "despicable." "I hope this family sues the hell out of the Highway Patrol, Cookeville police and that idiot lady who called them in the first place," Ford declared, looking at the Smoak's"Thank God you weren't black. They would have shot you, too!" The Smoak's are white. Ford is black. Ford said the officers involved should be fired and that "they lied on their reports."
Scott said he has recommended that those official procedures for a felony stop be changed.
Under the new procedure, officers will tell the exiting vehicle passengers to step out of the vehicle with hands up and "bump the door closed with your hip," Scott said. Officials are already teaching officers to use that command at the patrol training academy, he said, but it has not been made official policy yet.
Update 8/29/03: A Cookeville police officer who shot and killed a North Carolina family's dog after they were mistakenly stopped as robbery suspects is suing the city under a claim that it violated his right to privacy.
Officer Eric Hall's lawsuit filed in federal court seeks compensatory damages and a permanent injunction barring the city from releasing more information about him without notice.
"It's a violation of his constitutional rights," Hall's attorney, Chuck Ward, said.
The city's legal office had seen the lawsuit, but declined comment. It also names City Manager Jim Shipley and police Chief Robert Terry as defendants. "We're very disappointed," Shipley said. "We felt like the city supported the officer during the incident."
In the lawsuit, Hall contends that Shipley and Terry released his entire personnel file to reporters requesting it without removing certain information, such as Hall's birth certificate, Social Security number, and the names of his wife and children. The suit also asks for the state's current law regarding the release of information in law enforcement personnel files to be ruled unconstitutional.Update 10/18/03: The North Carolina family whose dog was shot by a Cookeville police officer during a botched traffic stop on Interstate 40 filed a federal lawsuit against the officers, state troopers and dispatchers who were involved, along with the city of Cookeville.
The Smoak family of Saluda, N.C., is seeking damages for "intentional and/or negligent infliction of emotional distress, conversion, loss of companionship, negligence, negligent supervision, gross negligence, assault, false imprisonment, false arrest and civil conspiracy." No dollar amount was specified in the suit. "It's for whatever the jury thinks it's worth," said Mary Parker, the Smoak's attorney.
The dispatchers and officers "negligently misinterpreted information from an unknown and unreliable informants, and set in motion the series of events that results in the violations of the (Smoak's) civil rights," the lawsuit says.
The suit also states that as James Smoak rose off his knees while pleading with officers not to shoot his dog, he was "slammed down on his knees to the pavement by two THP officers, seriously injuring his knees."
Although the Smoak's could be heard pleading with officers to shut the car doors so the family pets could not get out, the doors remained opened. Three minutes and seven seconds after the stop was initiated, Patton bounded out.
Smoak had to have surgery on the knee, Parker said.
The suit also asks for damages stemming from an alleged conspiracy, claiming that the officers worked together to protect Hall by "making overtly false statements in their reports and to the media" regarding the incident.Update 11/20/04: Almost two years after a North Carolina family's dog was shot during an Interstate 40 traffic stop, the pet's owners will be paid $77,500 to settle a lawsuit against the city of Cookeville and the police officer who leveled his shotgun at the canine.
The settlement in the U.S. District Court case filed by James and Pamela Smoak of Saluda, N.C., was accepted several weeks ago and became public when documents were filed in court. "That amount includes their attorney's fees, that's everything,'' City Manager Jim Shipley said. "It was just right up against the trial date. They were still in some depositions, but it was not far from trial. Just all of a sudden the offers started kind of going back and forth and we settled," Shipley said.
The city manager said the settlement was not an admission of guilt on the city's part. "We felt like we had a good case and we did nothing wrong. We admitted no liability in the settlement. In my opinion, it was a good economic decision," Shipley said.
The Highway Patrol case may also be headed for a settlement, said Mary Parker, attorney for the Smoak's "The dispatchers and the state officers are still in the case. We're going to mediate those in the next month or two,'' Parker said. "If we don't settle, we have a trial date set for April 19."
Parker said her clients were happy to have one case resolved but that reliving the emotion of the incident had been difficult. "That's the nature of litigation, you start to deal with things and then everything resurfaces. It's painful,'' the attorney said.
In addition to the suit against the THP, another lawsuit related to the dog shooting remains unresolved. Officer Hall, still a Cookeville policeman, sued his department in August 2003, alleging that personal information from his personnel record, including his Social Security number, had been released to the media. That suit is pending.
Update 11/30/04: After controversy about two videotaped dog shootings by Midstate police officers, animal behavior specialists with the American Humane Association began two days of training on non-deadly methods of dealing with vicious dogs.
More than two dozen police and animal-control officers from throughout Middle Tennessee - including 10 officers from Hendersonville, where the most recent dog shooting occurred - were scheduled to attend.
"I don't want to second-guess any police officer, but if you can avoid an encounter where you have to shoot somebody's pet, that's a good thing," said Sgt. Ty Wilson of the White House, TN, Police Department, one of five officers from that department at the training. "We're duty-bound to protect the public from vicious dogs, and we need any help we can get on how to defuse that kind of encounter."
During the session, animal behaviorist Penny Scott-Fox told the group that the key to knowing whether a dog will bite lies in understanding its body language. Pointing to projected images of dogs in a variety of stances, she said "soft and squishy" dogs with blinking eyes, wiggly bodies, and ears folded back are safe. Stiff, rigid dogs with the whites of their eyes showing, ears erect and teeth bared are probably not.
"You can just feel it when a dog's about to bite," said Scott-Fox, a trainer with the American Humane Association. "Their eyes get really hard, and you know what you're in for." Safe dogs, on the other hand, are "loose, wiggly and soft. They snake across the floor, and they look soft and squishy," she said.
Animal behavior training is a growing trend in law enforcement, and all new police recruits in the state are required to complete a two-hour course on dealing with aggressive animals, said Beth Denton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Safety, which oversees law-enforcement training.
The statewide training was launched in 2003 after the Cookeville dog shooting, she said.
Several officers attending the event said they learned all about dealing with aggressive people when they went through the police academy years ago but were given no information about dealing with aggressive animals.
"This kind of training is a growing trend because we're getting a lot more calls now where we have to deal with animals," said Sgt. Jim Ring of the White House Police Department. "Almost everyone has a pet of some sort."
Kerri Burns, a former police officer and trainer for the American Humane Association, said it's rarely necessary to kill an aggressive dog to stop it. "In a small percentage of cases, the dog just won't stop," she said. "It lunges at you, it might be a trained attack dog, and it just won't stop." Before using lethal force, Burns suggested officers try several other measures first.
Studies have shown that more than 90% of vicious-dog encounters can be defused using the humane association's method of "stop, drop and roll," she said.
The first step is to stop and assess the dog's body language, then drop your eyes so you're not staring down at the dog. Direct eye contact is a canine method of communicating aggression, Burns said.
After looking away, officers should gently roll their shoulder, slowly turning away until they're standing sideways to the dog.
If the dog is still in attack mode, the next step is to say, "Stop, sit down," in a deep, low, loud voice. If the dog continues to advance, officers should try pepper spray or putting a nightstick in the dog's mouth.
Taser guns also can be used, Burns said, but only when an animal-control officer is standing nearby with a catchpole. Otherwise, she said, the dog will have to be repeatedly zapped to keep it under control.
Dogs become aggressive when they feel trapped and scared, said Scott-Fox, and easing a tense confrontation with an angry dog involves giving that dog a way out of the situation.
The key is to analyze each part of a dog's body language, and then put everything together to look at the dog as a whole picture, she said. "A lot of times, dogs just don't understand what's expected of them and most aggression occurs out of fear," she said. "Most dogs, given the choice, will run away."
Officer Wilson of White House said he has had to use pepper spray several times on vicious dogs. An officer in his department had to shoot a dog last year when it attacked police as they arrested its owner. "It breaks your heart to shoot an animal," he said. "But if it's a choice between the dog or me, you got to protect yourself."
In a settlement announced this month in U.S. District Court, the Smoak's will be paid $77,500 to settle a lawsuit against the city of Cookeville and Hall for the mistaken police stop and dog shooting.
Update 8/26/06: A family whose dog was shot during a 2003 traffic stop can sue Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers for excessive force but not for violating their civil rights, a federal appeals court ruled.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reversed the decision by the federal court in Cookeville to allow the Smoak's to sue on all counts.
The court found that James Smoak complied with police when he got out of his car, knelt on the road and was handcuffed. But Smoak says troopers swept his feet out from under him and threw him to the pavement face first after he jumped up in horror when his dog was shot.
"A jury could find that a reasonable officer would not have reacted this forcefully to a handcuffed man who showed no signs of noncompliance until his pet was killed in front of his family," the opinion said.
Update 3/21/06: The U.S. Supreme Court refused to revive a lawsuit against two Tennessee officials over the release of the personnel file of an officer who killed a family's dog in 2003 during a traffic stop.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that Cookeville Police Chief Bob Terry and City Manager Jim Shipley had immunity from the lawsuit brought by officer Eric Hall.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined without comment to review Hall's appeal.
Hall sued Terry and Shipley, claiming they put his family in danger by releasing his personnel file with the names of his parents, wife, oldest child, fingerprints, birth certificate and Social Security number.
Following the dog shooting, police received an anonymous tip that the Animal Liberation Front, an extremist animal-rights group, wanted to kill Hall. His family was temporarily relocated to Gatlinburg.
Hall's August 2003 lawsuit claimed that releasing the file violated his rights to due process and privacy. He also claimed that Tennessee's Open Records Act violated federal and state constitutional rights to privacy.
Update 3/6/08: A federal jury awarded $9,100 to Smoak stemming from the traffic stop that injured his knee and led to the shooting of the family dog in Cookeville on New Year's 2003.
The jury found that Highway Patrol Sgt. David Bush used excessive force when restraining Smoak. Jerry Andrews, who was a lieutenant with the Highway Patrol at the time of the incident, was found not responsible.
"At least they found him (Bush) guilty," Smoak said. "This may teach them not to do this to anyone else. This shows they were wrong."
Before the shooting, Smoak tells the officers to close the door so Patton wouldn't leave the car. The dog gets out of the car and starts running around.
Cookeville police officer Eric Hall shot the dog, Patton, a 55-pound mixed-breed bulldog.
Smoak, already in handcuffs, instinctively got up. The video shows Smoak forced back to the ground.
The widely circulated video shows the family shrieking in horror when the dog gets shot at close range.
The Smoak's settled with the city of Cookeville for $77,500 for shooting their dog. Neither the city nor Hall was part of the federal case.
In the civil suit tried at the federal courthouse in Nashville, Smoak accused the troopers of excessive force when they threw him back down on the ground, causing injury to his knee, requiring surgery.
Initially, the family tried to sue for violation of civil rights and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reversed the decision. It allowed only Smoak — not his wife, Pam, or son — to sue for excessive force.
Pam Smoak declared the jury decision a victory. "It wasn't about the money," she said. "The horrible incident that happened was acknowledged by the jury and by the courts."
In court, Smoak's attorney, Mary Parker, told the jury that troopers were not gentle during the traumatic incident. She walked the jury through the video, frame by frame. "It's not OK for men in uniform to abuse the trust and the respect that we give them," she told the six women on the jury.
Michael Leftwich, Bush's attorney, declined to comment. Bush referred calls to the state Department of Safety.
Today, the Smoak's will return to their Columbus, N.C., home, where they have another mixed-breed bulldog from Patton's same line. They named him Admiral William Halsey.
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