On December 31, 2017, Eric Vette was apprehended and arrested on non-violent charges. After he was apprehended, and despite being unarmed and putting up no resistance, Mr. Vette was repeatedly punched and hit in the face with a dog chain by Sergeant Keith Sanders, a sergeant in the Montrose County Sheriff’s Office. Sergeant Sanders then released a police dog and allowed the animal to violently attack and bite Mr. Vette. At the time of the assault, Mr. Vette was not resisting arrest or attempting to flee. Representing himself, Mr. Vette brought a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim against Sergeant Sanders, who disputed Mr. Vette’s account of what happened and argued that he was protected by qualified immunity.
The District Court for the District of Colorado denied Sergeant Sanders’s motion for summary judgment, holding that he was not entitled to qualified immunity under the facts as Mr. Vette alleged. Sergeant Sanders appealed the district court’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. Mr. Vette retained LDF and co-counsel Rights Behind Bars on appeal. LDF and Rights Behind Bars argued that any reasonable police officer would have known that striking an already-apprehended subject in the face and releasing a police dog to bite him constitutes unconstitutional excessive force, and that the Tenth Circuit lacked jurisdiction over the appeal because Sergeant Sanders was impermissibly attempting to re-litigate the district court’s factual conclusions.
On March 5 2021, the Tenth Circuit issued a decision affirming the previous decision to deny qualified immunity and permitting Eric Tyler Vette’s civil rights claims to proceed. In its decision, the Tenth Circuit reaffirmed that the defendants can only appeal qualified immunity in limited circumstances when they do not dispute factual findings made by the lower court. The decision stated that every reasonable police officer should know that hitting, punching, and letting a police dog bite an already-apprehended person violates the Fourth Amendment. Mr. Vette’s case now returns to the district court, where he will be permitted to proceed.
Ending qualified immunity means that law enforcement officers who break the law can be held personally accountable, and victims of police misconduct can receive justice.