9/5/2011Federal Court: Traffic Stop Does Not Justify Home Entry
Tenth Circuit US Court of Appeals rules a police officer cannot enter a home over a minor traffic violation.
A police officer has no right to pursue a minor traffic stop into a home, according to a ruling handed down Wednesday by the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. A three-judge panel considered what happened after police in Sulphur, Oklahoma saw a suspect allegedly driving with faulty taillights on July 23, 2007.
Murray County Deputy Sheriff Craig A. Billings signaled seventeen-year-old Joshua Burchett, who was driving the car, to pull over. Burchett continued on for two blocks, parked in the driveway of his parents' three-bedroom home, ran inside and hid in the bathroom. Billings called for backup and Sulphur Police Officers Steve Watkins and Tony Simpson arrived at the scene.
Billings began kicking the door, which woke the parents, Jose and Christina Mascorro. Jose Mascorro opened the door and Billings pointed a gun at his head, yelling, "On your knees [expletive]. Where is he? Where is he?" When Christina Mascorro asked whether Billings had a warrant, she was blasted in the mouth with pepper spray. Billings then sprayed the other residents, including Mascorro's 14-year-old son. Christina Mascorro retreated to a back bedroom and called 911. Officer Watkins pulled her outside while Deputy Billings kicked in the door to the bathroom, gun drawn, to retrieve Burchett.
Jose and Christina Mascorro, after being treated at the hospital, were arrested and charged with obstructing a police officer in the performance of his duty. The district court judge described the state of their home as "ransacked" after the officers left. The Mascorros sued, claiming the officers made an illegal entry, used excessive force and made a false arrest. The law enforcement officers moved to dismiss the case based on their qualified immunity from prosecution. They argued that their actions were justified because they had been in "hot pursuit" of a fleeing suspect.
The appeals court considered US Supreme Court precedent on the question to determine whether "exigent circumstances" authorized their entry into a home without a warrant. They found only felony cases allowed such entry in extreme cases.
"We do not find the circumstances here amount to the kind of exigency excusing an officer from obtaining a warrant before entering a home," Judge Terrence L. O'Brien wrote for the court. "The intended arrest was for a traffic misdemeanor committed by a minor, with whom the officer was well acquainted, who had fled into his family home from which there was only one exit. The risk of flight or escape was somewhere between low and nonexistent. Moreover, there was no evidence which could have potentially been destroyed and there were no officer or public safety concerns."
Police officers lose their qualified immunity if their on-duty actions violated a constitutional right. The panel found these officers could be sued because they violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
"No reasonable officer would have thought pursuit of a minor for a mere misdemeanor traffic offense constituted the sort of exigency permitting entry into a home without a warrant," O'Brien concluded.
A copy of the decision is available in a 50k PDF file at the source link below.