Claim Filed Over Police Dog's Bite : Oxnard: The $100,000 legal action is the third one against the city's K-9 unit in three years. Police say the animals help find drugs and lost children.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An incident involving an Oxnard police dog that allegedly escaped from a patrol car and bit both a police officer and a crime suspect has led to the filing of a $100,000 damage claim against the city--the third legal battle in as many years involving the K-9 unit.

In the latest of three incidents involving Oxnard police dogs since 1987, Aaron Person, 21, of Oxnard is seeking $100,000 for physical and emotional damage in connection with an alleged dog attack on March 23.

Person's claim against the city, filed Monday by a Van Nuys attorney, charges that he was unnecessarily injured when a police dog escaped from a patrol car and attacked him as well as a police officer who had wrestled him to the ground in an alley near Citrus Grove Lane.

During the attack, according to a police report, the dog bit Officer Scott Hebert in the face before biting Person on the right leg. Both men were hospitalized for several days, authorities said.

Despite the attacks, Oxnard police officials defend the K-9 unit.

"We are happy with our K-9 unit," said Assistant Police Chief William Cady, adding that the four dogs in the department help find lost children and locate hidden narcotics and suspects.

However, he acknowledged that the dogs are not perfect.

"They are dogs and they do things on instinct even though you train them the best you can," he said.

"They do bite people sometimes," said Lt. Stan Myers, who oversees the K-9 unit. "It's unfortunate but they do."

But, he said, "The dogs do an outstanding job."

Person's claim, a legal move required before a lawsuit can be filed against a city, follows two other incidents in Oxnard that have led to lawsuits--one of them resolved by an out-of-court settlement.

Last year, the city settled a lawsuit filed by Ventura County Sheriff's Deputy Kenneth Bailey, who charged that he was bitten on the leg by a police dog named Kai while on duty and in pursuit of a burglary suspect.

The attack occurred in the 1900 block of San Gorgonio Avenue on Aug. 6, 1988, according to the claim--and later a lawsuit--filed against the city.

James Farley, the attorney who represented Bailey, said the dog was released by his handler while Bailey was chasing a burglary suspect. The dog bit Bailey because he could not distinguish between the burglar and the deputy, Farley said.

Farley said he does not recall exactly how much the city paid Bailey. But he estimated that it was more than $3,000.

The city still faces a $100,000 lawsuit in a 1987 incident in which Epifiano Cervantes and his brother, Artemio Cervantes, allegedly were bitten by Kai when the dog was sent into a house that police believed was being burglarized.

Oxnard police acknowledged in a police report that they later realized they had investigated the wrong house.

In the most recent incident, Officer Hebert was hospitalized for several days and still has visible scars, police said. Hebert declined to comment Wednesday.

Person, who was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest, was hospitalized with a large bite wound on his inner thigh. Person later pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor charge and was sentenced to 60 days in jail and three years of probation, court officials said.

Andy J. Collins, a Van Nuys attorney representing Person, claimed the Police Department was negligent in handling the dog.

"The dog went crazy, and I don't think it was meant to happen that way," he said. "The dog came out of nowhere and started biting."

The March 23 incident began when Hebert was on routine patrol near the Carriage Theater on Gonzales Street, according to a police report written by Officer Kenneth Klopman.

The report says Hebert saw Person leaving the theater and recognized him as being on probation stemming from a conviction for being under the influence of drugs.

According to the report, Hebert called out to Person, but Person fled through the parking lot. Hebert chased Person on foot and caught him in an alley near a condominium complex on Citrus Grove Lane near C Street, the report said.

The report said Hebert tried to search and handcuff Person but Person resisted. A struggle ensued and both men fell to the ground, the report said.

"Hebert got on top of Person, who was face down on the ground," the report said. "Hebert attempted to apply a carotid chokehold on him."

At that time, Officer James O'Brien of the K-9 unit drove up to the alley and, witnessing the struggle, got out of his patrol car to help restrain Person, the report said.

While the report does not say how the dog got out of the patrol car, it relates that the three men were struggling on the ground when the dog bit Hebert on the face.

"Hebert rolled off Person and heard him yelling and O'Brien telling Person to 'Let go of the dog,' " the report said. "Hebert then realized that he had been bitten . . ."

Collins said that under the requirements of Person's probation, police are allowed to search him for drugs. Collins said he doesn't dispute the fact that Person ran from the officer, but he contended that Person was the victim of police negligence in handling the dog.

"It's all rather vague on how he got out," Collins said, referring to the dog. "But I don't think the dog was meant to get out."

The attorney said he is not sure whether Person's injury has healed completely.

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