A Minneapolis police officer who shot two service dogs in 2017 acted unreasonably and should not be protected under qualified immunity, a federal appeals panel ruled this week.

Qualified immunity shields police officers and other public officials from being sued if they are acting reasonably within the duties of their jobs. But officer Michael Mays lost this protection when he hopped the fence that day, responding to an accidentally triggered home alarm system, and repeatedly shot two pit bulldogs who greeted him, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals Eighth Circuit decision.

The appeals court's decision, which affirms a previous ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim, means a lawsuit against Mays and the city of Minneapolis can move forward. Minneapolis City Attorney Jim Rowader declined to comment for this story.

The lawsuit alleges Mays violated the Constitution when he and his partner responded to an alarm call at a north Minneapolis home in July 2017, where Jennifer LeMay and Courtney Livingston lived with LeMay's two children. Livingston accidentally set off the burglar-alert system. She called in the false alarm, though it's not clear if Comcast, the security company, relayed the message to police, according to the federal appeals decision written by Circuit Judge Leonard Steven Grasz.

While his partner knocked on the front door, Mays jumped a 6-foot privacy fence in the backyard. A police report said the dogs "charged at [the] officer," but surveillance footage told a different story. One of the dogs, a 60-pound male called Ciroc that served as a support dog for one of LeMay's children, "walked toward Mays wagging his tail in a friendly manner to greet Mays," according to the lawsuit. Mays then shot Ciroc in the face.

The other dog, 130-pound Rocko, "presented himself to Mays in a non-threatening manner," according to court documents, and Mays shot Rocko multiple times in the body. Both dogs survived, but they were rendered unable to perform their service functions, according to the lawsuit.

LeMay and Livingston filed the suit in 2019, alleging Mays violated their rights to be free from unreasonable seizure, and that the city attempted to cover it up. The city has argued that Mays acted reasonably, but Tunheim declined to dismiss the lawsuit, finding the dogs posed no imminent threat, and the city appealed the decision.

The legal standard for qualified immunity says public officials may be shielded "from liability for civil damages if their conduct did not 'violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'"

In the appeal, Mays argued that the judicial panel should consider the description of the event in the police report as evidence that he acted reasonably when he shot the dogs. "But he does not simply want us to consider the police report's existence," opined Grasz. "He also wants us to accept its narrative as truth. Thus, he asks us to accept as fact his own assertion that the dogs growled when they came toward him."

In his opinion, Grasz said the allegations in the complaint show probable cause that the officer was not in imminent danger.

"It is clearly established that an officer cannot shoot a dog in the absence of an objectively legitimate and imminent threat to him or others," he wrote. "Thus, a reasonable officer would have known that shooting Ciroc and Rocko would violate the owners' 'clearly established right to be free from unreasonable seizures of property.'"

"We are pleased with the court's decision and are hopeful that the defendants will now address prompt resolution of the case," said attorney Mike Padden, who represents LeMay and Livingston.