Federal lawsuit filed against McMinn County, its sheriff and deputy over fatal shooting of dogs

A federal lawsuit seeking no less than $1 million has been filed against McMinn County, Tennessee, its sheriff and a county deputy stemming from an alleged warrantless search in April for a suspect the homeowners contend wasn't there and they didn't know.

In a seven-count federal suit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, plaintiffs Erin Johnson, Adriana Wilkins and Matthew Able name McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy and Deputy Dalton Townsend, alleging violations of civil rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and violations under the state's Tort Liability Act.

The suit seeks no less than $1 million for mental pain and suffering, as well as the loss of their pets and enjoyment of life they provided in the past and would have provided in the future, according to the suit. Additionally, the suit seeks unspecified punitive damages, legal expenses and any other relief determined through the court.

(READ MORE: Federal lawsuit filed in Winchester drowning that happened as police stood watching)

The suit alleges that around 4 a.m. on April 4, the Sheriff's Office received an anonymous and unverified tip that a suspect that deputies had been chasing was in the 100-200 block of County Road 675, near the plaintiffs' residence.

Townsend was one of the officers responding to the call without a warrant and without validation of the anonymous tip, the suit states.

"Upon arrival at the residence, one of the officers approached the front door of the residence while Officer Townsend proceeded to the side and rear of the house," the suit states.

The plaintiffs contend Townsend spotted a partially opened window and opened it. Inside, Wilkins and Able were asleep with the dogs, Milo and Alladin, in the room. The dogs belonged to Wilkins and Johnson, the suit states.

(READ MORE: $20 million lawsuit filed against Athens officers, city in man's 2020 death on the way to jail)

Hearing the noise, the dogs ran toward the window where they encountered Townsend, who allegedly fired his weapon, instantly killing one dog, according to the suit. Townsend then fired his weapon again, wounding the second dog, which later died after officers allegedly refused to allow the plaintiffs to leave the scene to seek medical care for the injured dog, the suit contends.

"It was later determined that none of the plaintiffs knew the suspect the police were attempting to locate," the suit states.

There was no connection to the residence and the suspect other than the anonymous, unverified tip, the plaintiffs contend.

The seven counts allege violations of search and seizure rights, failure to implement appropriate policies, customs and practices protected under civil rights law, use of excessive force, warrantless search and seizure, negligence, negligent supervision and assault, according to the suit.

McMinn County Mayor John Gentry said he hadn't seen the suit.

"We'll trust the court system to do what it's supposed to do," Gentry said Thursday by phone.

In an emailed statement, Guy said he learned of the suit Wednesday.

"Claims in the lawsuit against our officers are unfounded or completely false," Guy said in the email, noting officers at the time were seeking a suspect who was wanted on two felony warrants and had fled earlier.

"This suspect was believed to frequent the residence and he had been reported as being at the property an hour or so before. As officers knocked on the front door, two other officers went to the back of the residence," Guy said. "Noticing an open window, deputies made efforts to call out the suspect. At that moment, two large vicious dogs leapt from the window into the yard toward the deputies. The deputies retreated but were forced to shoot the dogs as they ran aggressively toward the officers in the yard. Much of the incident was captured as evidence on body camera."

Guy said the suspect was not found at the residence, but he said it appeared through later investigation that he had been on the property.

"Officers did not enter the residence through any door or window, nor conduct a search of the home," Guy said. "The officers were where they were supposed to be, and performed their duties according to law and our policies."

Guy said the Sheriff's Office regrets the loss of the dogs' lives.

"The McMinn County Sheriff's Office values dogs in our community, our own K-9s, and those we partner with the Humane Society for inmates to train for adoption," he said. "The Sheriff's Office regrets the loss of the two animals in this incident, but officers are allowed to protect themselves if necessary."

The defendants have 21 days from the time of service to file an answer to the suit unless other deadlines are ordered, according to court documents.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.