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Downton Greenville Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

Eric Sweet was seated on a curb in handcuffs after his arrest when a Greenville County sheriff's deputy crawling on his belly accidentally activated his vehicle remote and allowed his K-9 dog to spring loose.

The dog mauled Sweet, 32. He alleges in a federal lawsuit filed in May that deputies stood by and didn’t intervene.

“They just let it viciously attack this guy and afflict these injuries,” said Josh Hawkins, Sweet’s lawyer.

While the Greenville County Sheriff's Office rebutted Sweet's version of events in court papers, the K-9 attack on Sweet has joined a number of excessive force complaints about police dogs across South Carolina in recent years.

In Charleston County, deputies in 2012 were accused of excessive force when video showed them allowing a K-9 to attack a subdued 31-year-old male suspect, while the deputies also pummeled him with their fists.

That same year, a police dog sprung from its handler, chased after a Berkeley County worker and sunk its teeth into the man’s right forearm. The man posed no threat to law enforcement — he was running across the street to take cover from heavy rainfall.

Last year, a police dog escaped out of the front door of a Darlington County Sheriff’s Office vehicle and dragged a 53-year-old female bystander to the ground by her arm, according to WBTW in Florence.

Some notable recent incidents have come in Greenville. 

In 2014, a K-9 escaped from a sheriff’s vehicle and attacked a teenager after a latch failed because of a build-up of dog fur, deputies said.

The dog chased a 15-year-old boy after the dog's handler, Deputy Matt Lovelace, opened his car door to talk with a group of kids gathered in a parking lot. The dog chomped on the boy’s buttocks, injuring his nervous system and scarring, his family alleged in a lawsuit. The suit was later dismissed.

Lovelace also was the police dog handler when Sweet was attacked two years later. 

Law enforcement officials have said their K-9’s are akin to their fellow officers. Routinely used by police and sheriff’s departments across the state, the dogs play a vital role during drug seizures and high-risk arrests, officials say.

But even the most well-trained dogs occasionally slip up. Or, mistakes by handlers cause dogs to attack people who do not pose a threat. Either way, K-9 attacks are often violent affairs with lasting injuries.

Settlements stemming from police dog bites can be a costly burden for taxpayers, though the issue is difficult to track in South Carolina.

Payments are usually disbursed by the state’s Insurance Reserve Fund, which collects insurance premiums from local governments and covers liabilities. But the fund doesn’t break out law enforcement dog bites separately among its records, making it difficult to search for claims.

The state Insurance Reserve Fund in 2013 paid William Todd Miller nearly $250,000 for being bitten by a Greenville K-9 in March 2009 during a domestic violence arrest, WYFF in Greenville reported. Records from that case show gruesome injuries to Miller’s forearm, with large chunks of skin and tissue ripped off.

In the latest case to hit the courts, Sweet sat handcuffed after his 2016 arrest on drug and burglary charges, while Lovelace entered a crawlspace to recover stashed evidence, according to the lawsuit. While on his belly, Lovelace “inadvertently and without knowledge activated the remote release of his vehicle,” the Sheriff's Office said in its response.

That sent the K-9 after Sweet. He alleges that a deputy saw the dog attack him but refused to help. “The deputies allowed the dog to viciously maul and disfigure the plaintiff, who was handcuffed and helpless,” the suit says.

The Sheriff’s Office denied the allegation in court papers. Lovelace was the only K-9 handler on the scene and “as soon as he was notified that his dog was out of the vehicle he crawled out from the under the dwelling as quickly as he possibly could and gained control of the K-9.”

The full extent of Sweet’s injuries are unclear. He alleges the dog attack left him with “permanent disfigurement” and “loss of physical function,” but his lawyer declined to share photos of the injuries.

The Post and Courier filed a public records request on July 2 with the Greenville Sheriff's Office for reports from the incident, but it has not yet produced the documents. The Sheriff's Office declined comment because of the pending litigation.

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.