Judge finds SLCPD officer justified in 2014 killing of Geist the dog

Lawsuit • Ruling sends case back to state court; dog owner’s lawyer vows to appeal.

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Sean Kendall, owner of the dog, Geist, which was fatally shot last month by Salt Lake City police officer Brett Olsen, speaks as he held a press conference at his home, Friday, August 1, 2014. Kendall was responding to Olsen being cleared of any wrongdoing by the civilian review board.

A federal judge ruled against a man suing Salt Lake City police for an officer entering his fenced Sugar House backyard while searching for a missing child and fatally shooting his barking dog.

U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby's ruling backs Officer Brett Olsen, who shot Geist the dog. The judge remanded the dog owner's lawsuit back to state court.

Shelby noted at the start of a Feb. 7 hearing he was leaning in favor of the officer and the city. Rocky Anderson, the attorney for the dog's owner, Sean Kendall, said he strongly disagreed with Shelby's ruling and that he'd appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"I'm still very confident that we'll win on the merits both now before the state court and before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals," Anderson said Saturday.

Shelby ruled Olsen is protected from the suit by what's known as "qualified immunity," or the presumption that the public wants police to conduct their duties without fear of being sued for possible constitutional violations later.

The city's attorney, Samantha Slark, argued the need for Olsen and other officers to work quickly overrode the constitutional requirement to obtain a warrant before searching Kendall's property.

The city also argued Kendall's fenced and gated backyard wasn't private enough to be protected by the Fourth Amendment, and therefore Olsen's entering the backyard didn't constitute a protected search.

Shelby didn't rule on whether the backyard had Fourth Amendment protections because the search was reasonable and therefore "justified by the exigent circumstances of locating a missing child."

Anderson disagreed.

"I think the most frightening aspect of this, other than people losing their rights under the Fourth Amendment, is that police officers will follow the permissive standard set by this unprecedented decision, go into peoples' homes or yards, find evidence of a crime, and then that evidence is going to be thrown out at trial because it was illegally obtained," Anderson said.

Shelby also ruled in favor of Olsen's decision to pull his gun and shoot Geist twice.

He said that while fatally shooting a dog is a serious seizure because the owner is emotionally attached to the dog, police officer safety was also a serious concern that in this case outweighed Olsen's action.

Another officer was knocking on Kendall's front door to ask for permission to search the yard as Olsen was headed to the back to sweep the area shortly before the shooting. Olsen was the only witness to the shooting.

He said Geist bared his teeth, barked and began charging. He said he shot the dog as it leapt at him.

Shelby said the testimony was enough to show that Olsen reasonably feared for his well-being when he killed Geist.

"When presented with what appears to be an imminent threat, an officer need not wait to be mauled or attacked before employing force in self-defense," Shelby wrote.

The child, who was not communicative, was found sleeping amid clutter in his parents basement shortly after officers began looking.

Kendall has funded his court fight in part through a crowd funding website, where supporters of the effort have contributed over $35,000 in 32 months. A Facebook page in tribute to Geist and other dog's killed by officers has over 77,000 followers.

"Sean primarily wanted meaningful changes and training in policy," Anderson said.


Twitter: @TaylorWAnderson