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Disabled Veteran Suing Police Department for Tasing Service Dog During Wrongful Arrest for ‘Panhandling’
When law enforcement goes too far.
Joshua Rohrer in Gastonia, North Carolina, is suing the local police department for tasing his service dog, who later died from the encounter in 2021. At the time, Rohrer, a disabled military veteran, was homeless and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rohrer was known as a friendly face walking through his community accompanied by Sunshine, his service dog. “We would walk around and smile and wave at people,” he told RedState. “I was making friends and things like that. It just became my routine, something to get me through the day.”
The veteran said that while he did not ask people for money, many who came to know him would voluntarily donate to him, giving him food and cash. Despite his friendly demeanor, Rohrer said he became a target for at least two members of the Gastonia Police Department, who would tell him to leave the area, which was public property, even though he was not committing any crimes.
Officer Maurice Brooks III engaged with Rohrer frequently. In one instance, he told Rohrer where he was allowed to stand. But when the veteran went to that spot, Brooks engaged him again. “It was like I couldn’t do anything to appease him,” Rohrer recalled. “He promised me that the next time…he was going to arrest me.”
“I would just find somewhere else [where] the police didn’t bother me,” he said. Eventually, the matter escalated.
Rohrer explained that he “wasn’t doing anything illegal because I wasn’t panhandling.” In North Carolina, there are laws against soliciting people for money. However, none of these measures prohibit an individual from accepting money or other gifts from people giving them voluntarily.
On October 13, 2021, Officer Cierra Brooks approached Rohrer, telling him to leave. Rohrer complied. But later, Brooks pushed the matter when somebody gave him some food and money. “And when she saw them give me something, that's when she came up and the whole encounter started again,” Rohrer said.
Brooks wanted to cite Rohrer for allegedly panhandling, a charge Rohrer denies.
I tried to explain that I wasn't panhandling, that I hadn't asked anybody for anything and I didn't have the time. I was trying to say, ‘how can you give me a citation for something I didn't do?’ And that's when I did not want to obviously get the ticket. I was like, I haven't done anything wrong.
Officer Taylor arrived at the scene after Brooks called for backup. “He pulled up and was on the scene and pulled his car into the intersection and blocked everything off. I was like, Okay, he's here. He can explain to her because we had a previous encounter and he had seen for himself that I didn't ask anybody for anything and they would get me stuff,” Rohrer explained.
At this point, the officers threatened to take Sunshine away from him even though she was prescribed to him through the Office of Veterans Affairs. Rohrer said the officers said they would euthanize the dog and take him to jail.
The officers asked Rohrer for identification. The driver's license he had was expired, and since it is illegal to provide a peace officer with an expired identification, he offered his VA identification, which the officers rejected. “That's when he grabbed me by my arm and pushed me over the hood of the car and was trying to arrest me or placed me under arrest,” the veteran recounted, also noting that they tore his meniscus and LCL (lateral collateral ligament).
Sunshine, being an emotional support dog, did her job and jumped on the hood to lick Rohrer’s face to calm him down, which is what they are trained to do. The officers slammed the veteran to the ground, and one of them claimed the dog bit him, which Rohrer denies. When Sunshine tried to go to her master while he was on the ground, Taylor tased her.
He held the taser down for a crazy long time. Somewhere close to maybe 10 seconds or something like that…and the whole time, he's like, ‘get your dog. get your dog.’ I went after her because I just wouldn't let her get tased…I started screaming after her…I went to run around the side of the cruiser after her, and Brooks jumped on my back and pulled me down to the ground and got on top of me and I was just screaming, ‘why are you doing this to me?’”
Bodycam footage shows witnesses at the scene criticizing the officers. They stopped when they threatened to arrest at least one onlooker who told them that neither Rohrer nor his dog had harmed or threatened anyone. Officers were also caught on camera falsely telling other passersby that the veteran had attacked them. After Rohrer was handcuffed, the officers said they gave the dog to one of the people nearby. Unfortunately, Sunshine escaped after having been tased. Days later, she was hit by a car and died.
Joseph W. Mead, the attorney representing Rohrer in his lawsuit, indicated that they are exploring all legal avenues to hold the law enforcement officials accountable for their actions. "What happened to Mr. Rohrer and Sunshine is not just an infringement of civil liberties but also a gross misconduct on the part of the officers involved. We intend to pursue this to the fullest extent of the law,” he told RedState.
The attorney also noted that it is illegal to “ask, beg, solicit, or offer to work for money or any other thing having value,” and to block the passage of a person in a motor vehicle. Rohrer was not doing any of these. He was arrested on charges relating to resisting arrest and panhandling. The prosecutor later dropped all of the charges.
Mead said the objective of the suit is to have the ordinance under which Rohrer was arrested declared unconstitutional. The lawsuit names the officers involved and the city of Gastonia as defendants. “I hope to be able to get justice for Sunshine, mainly, and just for them to be held accountable for violating my rights,” Rohrer said. “I’m hoping that by pursuing this, it makes a change in that town and nationwide because there’s a lot of people that don’t have a voice and that this stuff happens to regularly.”
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