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Roommates file $16 million suit against police who shot their dog

The Prince George’s County Police Department and three of its officers were sued in federal court Monday for $16 million by four roommates who allege the officers illegally entered their apartment without a warrant, used excessive force and needlessly shot and paralyzed their dog, which later had to be euthanized.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland, was announced at a news conference Monday afternoon by the roommates — Erica Umana, Erika Erazo Sanchez, Dayri Amaya Benitez and Brandon Cuevas. Their attorneys, William “Billy” Murphy and Malcolm Ruff, have previously sued Prince George’s police in federal court numerous times for allegations of excessive force, unlawful search and seizure and false arrest.

But what made this case different, Ruff said, is cellphone video footage from one of the roommates as well as body-camera video footage from the officers, which attorneys played for reporters as the roommates wept.

“It’s an ugly situation deserving of every penny we are demanding of the county,” Murphy said. “We are here to make known that the Prince George’s County Police Department has not yet completed the job of reform. They still do ugly things to citizens.”

Murphy called on federal authorities to intervene again in Prince George’s, harking back to the 2000s when the Justice Department had the county police under a consent decree.

County officials said they do not comment on pending litigation.

The videos, reviewed by The Washington Post, show police responding to a call of an alleged dog bite at a Landover Hills apartment complex where the roommates lived in June 2021. The dog, a 6-year-old boxer mix named Hennessy, belonged to Umana.

Body-camera video shows the officers attempting to seize the dog — in contradiction of department rules — and entering the apartment with no warrant after obtaining a master key from a maintenance worker. When the roommates ask the officers if they have a warrant, one says in the video they don’t need one because they have “probable cause.”

But that was not true, according to the lawsuit, because no crime had been committed — by the dog or the dog’s owners.

“What happened after that was nothing short of utter chaos,” Ruff said, “created solely by these brazen, retaliatory and completely unauthorized actions of these disrespectful officers.”

Once inside the apartment, the officers pulled guns and Tasers and pointed them at the roommates. Amid the commotion, the dog ran out of a bedroom and past the officers — seemingly showing no aggression, according to the videos and the attorneys. One officer fired his gun, then another officer fired, and a third shocked the dog with a Taser, according to the video and the roommates accounts. They screamed and pleaded to be let go as they watched the dog writhe and bleed on their beige carpet.

Again, they asked: why were the police there without a warrant?

“That’s what happens when you don’t answer questions,” one officer responded.

Late that night, after being detained alongside her roommates for hours in the back of a hot police van, Umana reunited with Hennessy at a local animal hospital. Her pet was sedated and paralyzed, so she chose to have her euthanized — and was charged $800.

The county offered to pay for the medical bills, according to the lawsuit, but only if she promised not to speak out publicly about the home invasion and shooting. Umana said no.

In the two and a half years since the incident, the three officers who were involved have faced discipline internally by the police department but no criminal charges.

An internal affairs investigation found that Cpl. Jason Ball and Officer Joseph Mihanda were accused of “conduct unbecoming an officer,” were placed on paid administrative duty and brought before an internal trial board, the police department said. Mihanda was found guilty and was disciplined, a department spokesperson said. Ball’s case is still pending as the department awaits a discipline recommendation from the trial board, the spokesperson said.

Cpl. Anthony Jackson, who was not initially involved in the incident, was found guilty of a body camera violation, the department said. He was suspended for two weeks with pay, police said, and has returned to his full duties.

The police department’s internal affairs division referred the results of their investigation to the state’s attorney’s office to determine if the officers committed any crimes. The state’s attorney’s office declined to prosecute, a spokesperson said.

“After reviewing all of the evidence in this matter a determination was made that actions of the officers didn’t generate criminal liability because they were acting in good faith,” the office said in a statement to The Post.

But the roommates, their attorneys and a host of supporters who joined them at the news conference — including representatives from the NAACP Maryland State Conference, Coalition of Concerned Mothers of Prince George’s County, CASA and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland — disagreed with that assessment from prosecutors.

“Without a badge, these officers would be trespassers. Without a badge these officers would be called burglars. Without a badge, these officers would be called assailants,” said NaShona Kess, of the Maryland NAACP. “With a badge and without a warrant they are trespassers. With a badge and without a warrant they are burglars and assailants.”

Ruff said the officers’ conduct was a blatant violation of the roommates’ Fourth Amendment rights as well as a violation of the police department’s general orders — the police employee manual. It instructs officers to complete a case record for their supervisor if an animal is dangerous but contained. If an animal poses an immediate threat, officers are supposed to find and contain it “without endangering themselves or the public,” then call animal control, according to the protocol.

If officers cannot find the animal, they are to create a case record and give it to the animal management division within 24 hours. Department protocol also says that officers should assist animal control in enforcing animal-related laws only after a warrant has been issued.

The announcement came the same day that jury selection started in the second-degree murder trial of a different Prince George’s County police officer, who was charged with fatally shooting a man six times in January 2020 while the man’s hands were cuffed behind his back. Murphy and Ruff represented the victim’s family in a civil case over that shooting, securing a $20 million settlement from the county — at the time considered one of the largest police misconduct payouts in history.

The dog shooting case, the attorneys said, is a new data point in a long history of the department’s officers using excessive force and abusing their police powers.

“This lawsuit is yet another tragically foreseeable outcome of a failed and biased system of policing in Prince George’s County, to which County leadership has continually turned a blind eye,” the lawsuit said.

The roommates have been “irreparably damaged,” having suffered from post-traumatic stress, panic attacks, medical expenses and legal fees, the attorneys say. “There is no reason under the sun they should have been treated the way the county police treated them,” Ruff said.

When reached by phone Monday, Ball said he had not received notice of the lawsuit. A man reached at a number connected with Mihanda declined to comment or identify himself but referred questions to the police department. Jackson could not immediately be reached for comment.

Erazo Sanchez spoke on behalf of her roommates at the news conference and said that night was a “nightmare.”

“I held Henny’s body, bloody body, while she was dying in my arms while the rest of her family was detained,” she said. “I no longer feel safe in the presence of police officers and I will never trust them ever again.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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