The Pooch Wins

A jury dismisses claims that police sicced a dog on helpless defendants

If every dog has his day, July 24 was DJ the German shepherd's—because that's when a federal jury cleared the NYPD K-9 of police-brutality allegations.

On August 6, 2004, the Czech-born DJ led his NYPD handler and two detectives to William Bryant and Emmanuel Blake, then both 16, who were hiding in an air vent after breaking into a sub-basement of a maintenance garage in the Marcus Garvey Houses in Brooklyn. Police assert that the teens were looking to steal yard equipment (see "Reality Bites," July 25).

Bryant and Blake claim that after they were pulled separately from the vent—and while they were being held down by detectives Bill Unger and Danny Sprague—Officer Lawrence Zacarese sicced DJ on them. Bryant suffered a four-inch cut to the back of his knee, while Blake received puncture wounds to his arm and was bitten on the face.

Claiming the dog attack was in retaliation for making the officers tromp through a sewage-strewn and rat-filled basement—and not because they were resisting arrest, as the police alleged—Brooklyn-based attorney Andrew Stoll sued on behalf of Bryant and Blake, arguing that the attack violated their constitutional rights.

But the duo turned out to have a dog's chance of ever seeing a penny, much less the $5 million they were each seeking.

Following a six-day trial in Manhattan's federal court, a jury of eight took less than two hours to find that Zacarese, Unger, and Sprague did not violate the men's rights, essentially clearing DJ, who has been forced into retirement by a congenital disease and is now Zacarese's personal pet.

"It's very difficult to get people to see past the hero-and-villain mentality," Stoll says. "Every line out of [the city attorneys'] mouths was how dangerous the officers' jobs are and what criminals my guys are."

Blake's and Bryant's criminal records didn't help. Neither did the fact that they incessantly clowned around with each other during courtroom sidebars. Nor could it have been a good thing that one of the jurors—who kept smiling at the officers—is dating an NYPD officer.

"At the end of the day, we had a somewhat sympathetic case, but not very sympathetic plaintiffs," Stoll said. "It's difficult to ask a jury to consider that even someone who committed a crime can have their rights violated."

Frances Sands, deputy chief of the Special Federal Litigation Division for the city's Corporation Council, said they were "pleased" with the verdict. "The jury recognized that there was no excessive force, no assault, and no battery in this case, and that the three officers acted properly." Make that three officers and one canine colleague.

 
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