Officer In Controversial Canine Case Reinstated

Officer Jason Lewis was assigned to the New Orleans Police Department’s K-9 Division. Lewis’s dog was Primo, a Belgian Malinois.

After working Primo out on May 27, 2009, Officer Lewis placed Primo in his K-9 unit, gave him water and turned on the unit’s cooling system. Then Officer Lewis went inside his home to shower and dress for his shift.

When Officer Lewis returned to the vehicle he immediately noticed that the seats in the vehicle had been torn to pieces. He opened the vehicle to reprimand Primo for destroying the seats and noticed he was lying in the back coughing. Believing that foam stuffing from the seats was obstructing his airway, Officer Lewis pulled Primo from the vehicle and attempted to clear his air passageway. The dog’s body temperature seemed elevated so he hosed him down trying to cool him down. Next, he placed the dog in his personal vehicle and drove him to the closest veterinarian office, where the dog died.

Immediately following Primo’s death, the Department inspected the K-9 vehicle. The inspection, which was videotaped, documented that the vehicle’s air conditioner was on and set to the maximum cool and maximum air positions. Next the officers tested the back-up system to determine if it was working properly. Once the air conditioner was turned off and the interior temperature reached 87 degrees, an alarm sounded, the fan started, and the windows rolled down.

Shortly after Primo’s death, there was an investigation by the Public Integrity Bureau (PIB). In addition to reviewing the vehicle and medical reports, PIB conducted several interviews including Officer Lewis’ co-workers, neighbors and three veterinarians. None of the interviews gave any indication that Officer Lewis ever mishandled or neglected Primo. To the contrary, the doctors stated that Primo’s heat stroke could have been brought on by his physical conduct. Primo was known to be high strung and to suffer from separation anxiety when he was away from Officer Lewis. The result of the PIB was that there was insufficient evidence to prove that Officer Lewis neglected any of his duties as they pertained to the handling and care of Primo.

Things then got complicated. On April 22, 2010, the District Attorney filed a Bill of Information charging Officer Lewis with Aggravated Cruelty to Animals, a felony. Officer Lewis was arrested.

The case was allotted to a trial judge named Alarcon. Officer Lewis’ attorneys warned him that his attorneys considered Judge Alarcon to be an animal activist. At his bond hearing before Judge Alarcon, the Judge ordered a $100,000.00 bond. A $10,000.00 bond was suggested by the attorneys without objection by the State. Judge Alarcon altered the amount of the bond to $35,000.00 and said, “Well, I am going to put on the record that this is what I normally give my negligent homicide cases.”

Just prior to trial, Officer Lewis met with his attorneys who reviewed his options with him and advised him that owing to media coverage, they did not think he could get a fair jury trial. When his attorneys urged him to plead to a misdemeanor, he agreed.

The Department then fired Lewis, citing his guilty plea. When the Civil Service Commission upheld his termination, Lewis appealed to the Louisiana Court of Appeals.

The Court ordered that Lewis’ discharge be reversed, and that he be made whole for lost pay. The Court held that “glaringly absent from the hundreds of pages of testimony was any evidence that Jason Lewis was negligent in his duties as a handler and caregiver for Primo. All evidence indicates otherwise and the Commission’s ruling acknowledged as much, stating ‘this case would be simple if in fact the Appellant mistreated, neglected, or was cruel towards the animal that he was assigned to care for and protect.’

“During his testimony, Police Chief Ronal Serpas claimed that he found Officer Lewis had violated ‘moral conduct, adherence to the law.’ He reasoned that the loss of Primo and the cost to replace him was a consideration and that he viewed it as impairing the efficiency of the operation. However, on cross-examination he admitted that although he knew of PIB’s investigation and report, it was not something he looked at.

“The Commission recognized that the appointing authority, for unknown reasons, ignored the underlying facts of this case when making the decision to terminate. Nonetheless, the Commission went on to find that termination based solely on the guilty plea was not an abuse of discretion. We disagree.

“The Commission was presented with ample evidence indicating that Primo’s death was not a result of any action or inaction by Jason Lewis. Included in that evidence was expert testimony that established Primo was high strung and had a history of working himself up when he was separated from his handler. The expert testimony explained that the condition of the interior of the vehicle was not representative of a dog suffering from heat sroke but rather a dog that worked himself into a frenzy, which subsequently resulted in increased body temperature and heatsroke. We find it was arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion for the appointing authority to ignore the results of the PIB investigation surrounding the death of Primo and the mitigating circumstances involved with Jason Lewis’ plea.”

Lewis v. Department of Police, 2012 WL 1563909 (La. App. 2012).