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Second Circuit Affirms Qualified Immunity for Connecticut Cops who Sicced K-9 on Suspect in His Holding Cell

by Casey J. Bastian

When attempting to keep a detainee from hurting himself, are jailers entitled to injure him with impunity? On September 26, 2022, the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit answered “yes,” affirming dismissal of a civil rights lawsuit filed by a Connecticut detainee on whom cops used “a baton, police canine, and a taser” in their effort to “secure him.” In its ruling, the Court found Defendants’ conduct was “reasonable and justified under the circumstances,” so they were entitled to qualified immunity (QI).

On the night of February 19, 2011, William McKinney was arrested by officers with Connecticut’s Middletown Police Department (MPD). He was accused of several offenses, including robbing a Subway restaurant. McKinney was also under the influence of cocaine, psychotropics, and alcohol. Following his arrest, McKinney was transported to the MPD jail and placed in a cell.

Around 4:00 am, officers noticed that McKinney had covered his cell’s security camera with toilet paper. Officer Thomas Sebolt ordered McKinney to remove the obstruction, and McKinney complied. But at that point the detainee allegedly attempted to hurt himself and covered the camera lens a second time. A second officer, Joshua Ward, made a second demand that he remove the obstruction, but McKinney refused to comply.

Officers then tried to remove him from the cell – for his safety, they said – but he “actively resisted their efforts,” as the Court later recalled. After McKinney “threatened and attacked” the officers, they used weapons and a police dog to extract McKinney. He then filed suit in federal court for the District of Connecticut against the city and its police officers.

Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, he accused them of using excessive force, in violation of his Fourth Amendment guarantee of protection from unreasonable seizure. In addition, McKinney alleged “state law claims of intentional, reckless, and negligent assault and battery” against Sebold and Ward, as well as Officer Michael D’Aresta, who deployed “Hunter,” a department K-9. He also alleged statutory and common law negligence against the city.

The district court held that Defendants’ use of force was reasonable and said that the officers were entitled to QI. McKinney appealed, and the Second Circuit found that “a reasonable jury could conclude that the officers’ combined use of a baton, a police canine, and a taser was excessive” even in the face of McKinney’s violent conduct. However, the Court expressed no opinion as to granting the officers QI.

The case was remanded back to the district court, and this time Defendant’s motion to dismiss was granted based solely on QI. McKinney appealed again. He argued that the officers’ alleged use of the K-9 violated clearly established law, and that this was a matter for a jury to determine, so the district court applied an incorrect standard of review to dismiss the case. He also said that the grant of QI should be “reversed on public policy grounds.”

The Court was not persuaded by these arguments. Based on McKinney’s conduct – and that he had no “reason to dispute” the officers’ version of events, since he had “very little recollection” of the night – the Court found no violation of “clearly-established rights of which an objectively reasonable officer would have known.” That also meant there was no “dispute of material fact that must be decided by a jury,” so the level of review used by the district court in considering the motion for summary judgment was proper.

Finally, precedent foreclosed the public policy argument, the Court said. Accordingly, the district court’s grant of summary judgement was affirmed. McKinney was represented by attorney Alexandra Elenowitz-Hess with the New York City firm of Sher Tremonte LLP. See: McKinney v. City of Middletown, 49 F.4th 730 (2d Cir. 2022). 

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