Vienna K9 handler to sue for value of fired drug dog

awomack@macon.comJune 22, 2014 

Vienna police Cpl. Michael James Smith paid $10,000 for Stitch, a specially trained K9 dog.

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After having a K9 unit for two years, Vienna police fired Stitch, their badge-wearing Belgian malinois, last month.

The dog’s handler, Cpl. Michael James Smith, filed an ante-litem notice with the city June 10, saying he plans to sue Vienna and several city officials for the $10,000 he paid to buy the specially trained dog, said Michelle Smith, the officer’s lawyer.

Michelle Smith, who also is Michael Smith’s sister, contends Vienna eliminated the police department’s K9 program in May, about two months after Stitch allegedly sat down beside the police chief’s personal car, signalling that he smelled drugs.

“He got a whiff of something and sat down at the wrong car,” she said.

The police department referred questions to the city attorney Friday. Attempts to reach the city attorney for comment were unsuccessful.

Calls to Vienna’s mayor were not returned.

Stitch alerted on the chief’s car during a routine training exercise where three or four other officers were present, Michelle Smith said.

Although the incident was reported to the dog handler’s supervisor, no reports were written, she said.

No search warrant was issued, so the car was never checked for drugs, Michelle Smith said.

She said her client bought Stitch after his previous drug dog died. At the time of purchase, the officer had the understanding that he’d have a job as a drug dog handler in Vienna for the life of the dog, eight to 10 years.

“Now he’s got a $10,000 dog and no job,” Smith said.

The demand letter alleges the city recently refused to pay receipts and invoices for the dog’s care, although Michelle Smith said the city had paid for dog food and veterinarian bills in the past.

The letter also alleges Vienna’s police chief “begged” Michael Smith in January not to take an offered K9 handler job at another department, not to interview for a chief’s position in south Georgia or to take any other K9 position.

Michael Smith has filed appeals for denied unemployment benefits.

His sister said she was assigned to represent her brother in his unemployment claim case by the Southern States Police Benevolent Association. She offers legal services to the association on a volunteer basis, and her brother is a member.

The Georgia Department of Labor denied Michael Smith’s claim for benefits, citing that he quit for health reasons, according to the denial letter.

Michelle Smith admits that although the K9 handler position was eliminated, the police department did not fire Michael Smith. He quit.

She contends he is eligible for benefits because his job was “substantially changed.”

Michael Smith also has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor.

To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.

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