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Liability for police dog bite. Relf v. City of Troy, 169 A.D.3d 1223 (N.Y. App. Div. 2019)


Excessive force refers to the application of force by law enforcement officers that exceeds what is reasonably necessary to effectively control a situation, prevent harm, or make an arrest. While officers are permitted to use force in certain circumstances, such as when facing resistance or threats to safety, the force used must be proportionate to the threat posed. Determining whether force is excessive involves a careful consideration of the totality of the circumstances, including the severity of the alleged crime, the behavior of the individual, and the risk of danger to officers and others.

In cases involving excessive force, courts typically apply an objective reasonableness standard, as established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor (1989). This standard evaluates the actions of the officer from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, considering the information known to the officer at the time of the incident. Factors such as the threat posed by the individual, the availability of alternative methods, and the need for immediate action are all taken into account.

In Relf v. City of Troy, the court was tasked with applying this standard to the actions of a police dog, which is considered a tool of law enforcement. Just as with human officers, the use of a police dog’s force must be reasonable under the circumstances. This includes considerations such as the dog’s training, the handler’s supervision, and the foreseeability of harm to innocent bystanders.

Background Facts
On December 28, 2013, a gas station employee in Troy reported a robbery by two armed men. Officer Ashe responded with his K–9 partner, Elza, to track the suspects. During the search, Elza, off leash, encountered Theodore Relf, who was walking to his car. Relf had nothing to do with the robbery.  Elza bit Relf, causing injuries.

This incident led Relf and his wife to file a legal action against the Troy Police Department, Officer Ashe, the City of Troy, and Sergeant Raymond White, seeking damages for the injuries sustained. Their claims included allegations of violations under 42 USC § 1983, as well as common-law negligence and battery.


Whether Officer Ashe and the City of Troy could be held liable for the injuries caused by Elza’s bite. Specifically, the court had to determine if Ashe’s actions constituted excessive force, if the city was negligent in its training and supervision of officers, and if Ashe could be held personally liable for battery.

The court held that there were triable issues of fact regarding Ashe’s use of excessive force and his entitlement to qualified immunity. The court also found that there were questions of fact regarding the City of Troy’s negligence in training and supervision. However, the court dismissed the common-law negligence claims against the city based on the professional judgment rule.

The court reasoned that Ashe’s actions in releasing Elza off leash, knowing her aggressive tendencies and inability to differentiate between suspects and innocent bystanders, raised questions of excessive force and qualified immunity. The court also noted that the city’s training and supervision policies regarding K–9 units were vague and did not comply with generally accepted police procedures, leading to potential liability for negligence.

The court’s application of the Fourth Amendment’s standard regarding the use of excessive force to the actions of a police dog in this case highlights the importance of ensuring that law enforcement officers and their animal partners are trained and supervised appropriately. Just as an officer’s use of force must be reasonable under the circumstances, so too must the deployment of a police dog. The court’s decision underscores the need for police departments to establish clear policies and procedures regarding the use of K–9 units to prevent incidents of excessive force and protect the rights of individuals in their communities.

If you have been injured due to police misconduct or negligence, it is essential to seek legal representation from an experienced New York police brutality lawyer. They can help you understand your rights and options for seeking compensation for your injuries. Contact our law firm today for a free consultation.

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