I know that many people are following my progress in the Creepy Cops Search Case out of Putnam County, West Virginia, where drug task force police officers were caught on camera illegally searching my client’s house. That apparently includes those officers and their lawyers in the pending federal civil rights lawsuit. This is the most recent update about the case:
On Friday, the defendant officers’ lawyers filed a motion completely centered on my Youtube channel, requesting an order prohibiting me from ever publishing video deposition testimony of those police officers. Basically they’re requesting court approval for a coverup. Now, important First Amendment issues are implicated. Police already have qualified immunity. The one remedy given to us by Congress it to sue them. Now they want to turn that process into something akin to Family Court or abuse and neglect proceedings, where government gets to operate in secrecy and without accountability and exposure. Here’s the motion they filed:
The video depositions in the Creepy Cops Search Case haven’t even been taken yet. They’re actually scheduled to be taken in a few days. I already agreed to postpone them several times already at their request, because they were concerned that the FBI was investigating them. So I gave them time to evaluate their situation and hire or consult criminal defense attorneys before they testified. Now, they want to testify essentially in secret. Why? Because posting their video testimony allegedly puts them in danger. They went through the prior videos I published on this situation and cherry picked the craziest ones they could find, and presented them to the Court as the basis for why I should be forever silenced from exposing their misconduct.
At the end of every video I tell you that freedom is scary. Why? Why is it scary? Fear is the tool that tyrants use to subject us and take away our freedoms. Over and over again. From the beginning of recorded history to the present. Of course police officers in America, if given the choice, would choose to operate in secrecy. They don’t want to be recorded. They don’t want to give you their names – they just want yours.
We’ve all seen the recent shooting footage out of Ohio. But that may have overshadowed another recent case where body cam footage was just released from the LAPD. Body cam footage reveals that just before officers shot an unarmed man holding an automotive part, that one of the officers said to the others, “it’s not a gun bro.” Then he was shot with no warning. Indeed, it wasn’t a gun.
Here’s the LAPD’s video:
Here’s the official account as per the LAPD:
On July 18, 2022, at around 7:20 p.m., Southwest Division patrol officers received an “Assault with a Deadly Weapon” radio call. The reporting party advised Communications Division that the suspect was armed with a black, semi-automatic handgun. Uniformed personnel observed the suspect matching the description listed in the comments of the radio call, walking on the north sidewalk of Martin Luther King Boulevard, just east of Bronson Avenue. Officers made contact with the suspect, who they believed was in possession of a handgun. The suspect refused to respond to officer’s verbal commands. As a uniformed supervisor arrived at scene, he also believed that the suspect was armed with a handgun. As the suspect walked away from the officers, he turned multiple times in their direction and pointed a black metallic object believed to be a firearm, which resulted in an Officer-Involved-Shooting (OIS). The suspect was struck by gunfire and taken into custody.
Determining whether an officer’s use of force violates the Fourth Amendment requires balancing “the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion.” Tennessee v. Garner (1985).That inquiry generally involves an assessment of factors such as “the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” Graham v. Connor (1989).
In the context involved here, the Supreme Court has crafted a more definitive rule: An officer may use deadly force to apprehend a fleeing suspect only if “the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others.” Garner , 471 U.S. at 11, 105 S.Ct. 1694. A suspect may pose such a threat if “there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm,” or if the suspect threatens the officer or others with a weapon capable of inflicting such harm. Id.
The key questions is whether the officer had an objectively reasonable basis for believing that the suspect posed a threat of serious physical harm, either to himself or to others.
The officer who fired here, fired from behind at a suspect who was running away from the officer. Thus it would be difficult to claim that he did so out of fear for his own safety at the moment the shots were fired. Did the officer therefore have an objectively reasonable basis for believing that the suspect posed an immediate threat of serious physical harm to others? The footage shows that no other individuals appear to be in immediate danger at the time the shots were fired. One police cruiser attempts to drive up and block the suspect’s path. Theoretically the officer, or officers, inside could be in harm’s way – though they also clearly were intentionally placing themselves in his path.
Perhaps the best argument for justification is what is known as the “fleeing felon rule” which arose out of Tennessee v. Garner. An officer can argue that permitting the suspect to escape posed a threat to the general public. A fleeing suspect’s escape can pose a threat to the public when police have probable cause to believe that the suspect has committed a violent crime. Deadly force to prevent such an escape can be reasonable if the suspect has demonstrated that he was willing to injure an officer who got in the way of his escape or that he was willing to persist in extremely reckless behavior that threatened the lives of all those around. (Orn v. City of Tacoma, Corp. (9th Cir. 2020).
Usually this would involve a vehicle pursuit, or some type of running gun battle situation, where the suspect has already tried to seriously injure someone. Here, however, though it was reported that the suspect pointed a gun at someone, the officers did not know that to be true as of yet. They had not observed him threaten anyone with a gun. They had not positively identified the person by that point. They merely observed that he was holding something that could be a gun, and that he refused to stop and talk with them. There’s no probable cause for the officers to believe that the suspect had committed any serious crime. The suspect was not given a warning of the imminent use of deadly force by the officers, which has been required by the 9th Circuit in prior cases.
To the contrary, here, the officers themselves were unsure of whether they many even had a gun. As we heard on the body cam footage, one of the officers said, “that’s not a gun bro.” And it wasn’t. At the end of the day, there is sufficient evidence here to deny qualified immunity and take the officer before a civil jury on an excessive force claim. The jury can decide whether the officer’s claims, whatever they end up being, are objectively reasonable.
Today’s video is about Matthew Souter, who owns a farmhouse in The Plains, Virginia. He ended up being unlawfully arrested and tased by police officers in his front yard. Back in November of 2018. He rented a bedroom and bathroom in his home to Melissa Johnson. Following a dispute about her cat and an electric hotplate, she went to a local court and obtained an ex parte Emergency Protective Order (“EPO”) against Mr. Souter, which restricted him from “acts of violence, force, or threat of criminal offenses resulting in injury to person or property” of Johnson.
The next day, November 10, 2018, Johnson called the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office and reported that Plaintiff had violated the EPO by terminating the electric and water service to her bedroom and bathroom. She spoke with a deputy who took her complaint and classified it as a “civil matter.” Not satisfied with that, she called again later the same day. This time she spoke with a different deputy, who was dangerously incompetent. He ended up applying for an arrest warrant against Mr. Souter, alleging a violation of the EPO. There in fact was no violation – nor any reason for him to believe that Mr. Souter had committed any crime. But, he obtained an arrest warrant.
This deputy and his supervisor then traveled to Mr. Souter’s home with an arrest warrant. The deputies seized Mr. Souter. I spoke with Mr. Souter on the phone and he denies resisting this arrest. However, in a subsequent ruling, the federal court wrote that it was undisputed that he resisted arrest. This is what the Court found, specifically: “Plaintiff resisted arrest and did not permit the officers to handcuff him. The officers then wrestled the Plaintiff to the ground, while Plaintiff continued to resist the officers. McCauley then used a taser to subdue the Plaintiff. After Plaintiff was tased, the officers were able to handcuff the Plaintiff.” Mr. Souter was tased multiple times and was bleeding. He was taken to a local hospital emergency room.
The officers subsequently charged Souter with the underlying EPO violation, as well as attempted fleeing from a law enforcement officer. The EPO charge ended up being dismissed by the prosecutor, and he was found not guilty of the fleeing charge following the criminal trial.
Then Souter filed a federal section 1983 civil lawsuit. Here’s the complaint his lawyer filed:
Fast forward in the litigation, and something pretty unusual ended up happening. The federal judge – Judge Ellis – in the Eastern District of Virginia, not only denied qualified immunity to the officers, but granted summary judgment in favor of the Plaintiff. That means that the Court found that Mr. Souter’s civil rights were violated, as a matter of law, and that the only issue for the jury to decide is the amount of money damages to be awarded.
Why did the officers lose qualified immunity, as well as the opportunity to even oppose liability in front of the jury? In short, because they acted such utter incompetence. The Fourth Amendment protects against citizens being unlawfully arrested by law enforcement. An unlawful arrest is one that occurs in the absence of probable cause. Police officers can be held civilly liable for a false arrest “if it would have been clear to reasonable officers in their position that they lacked probable cause to arrest” Plaintiff for violating the cited law. Graham v. Gagnon (4th Cir. 2016).
The officers aren’t required to be actually correct in their probable cause determination, but rather reasonable in their probable cause determination. Here’s the Court’s full opinion:
In this case, all the officers knew is the allegation that the Plaintiff had cut off Johnson’s water and electric service. There was no reasonable basis for them to conclude that the Plaintiff had engaged in any act of violence, force, or threat, against Johnson. Thus, if they believed Plaintiff had done any of those acts, such a belief would have been clearly erroneous and unreasonable.
The arrest warrant the officers obtained alleged violation of a domestic violence type of protective order, which did not exist in this case. No such domestic violence type of protective order had been issued against the Plaintiff, as would be obvious on the face of the actual EPO served on the Plaintiff. Moreover, even if Plaintiff had been served with a domestic violence protective order, cutting off water and electric do not constitute acts of violence, as defined in the EPO. Therefore, Plaintiff’s conduct could not have led a reasonable law enforcement officer to conclude that probable cause existed or that his arrest was proper. Thus they violated his constitutional rights when they unlawfully arrested him (and used force to effectuate that arrest) in the absence of probable cause.
The illegality of Plaintiff’s arrest taints the defendant officers’ subsequent actions and renders them liable for Plaintiff’s excessive force claims. Under federal law, “the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable seizures bars police officers from using excessive force to seize a free citizen.” Jones v. Buchanan (4th Cir. 2003).
Let’s fast forward to the trial results. The jury ended up awarding a total of $50,000.00 in compensatory damages to Mr. Souter. Here’s the jury verdict form:
In my phone conversation with Mr. Souter, he was actually very unhappy with the verdict, both in the amount of $50,000.00, as well as the lack of a punitive damages award. He took issue with how the presentation of the damages claim was presented to the jury at trial.
For many reasons, people many times have unrealistic expectations on the value of damages in civil rights cases. At the end of the day, a jury decides these things. This can vary wildly depending on a number of factors, including the personalities of the parties, as well as the jurors themselves. I wasn’t at this trial, so I really have no idea what dynamics were present in the courtroom. But this illustrates one of the difficult parts of the job of a civil rights lawyer. Ultimately you have to convince a jury to award money damages. How do you do that? It can be very difficult, and sometimes emotion is all you have, assuming you can instill it in the hearts of the jurors.
There’s a form instruction in section 1983 cases that says something to the effect of, if you find that the plaintiff’s civil rights were violated, you must at least award $1.00, even if you find that the plaintiff suffered no actual damages. The value of constitutional injuries can vary wildly based on who is on the jury. But there’s also a federal law, 42 U.S.C. Section 1988, which provides for an award of reasonable attorney fees following a finding of liability. That means that even if a jury awards One Dollar, there could potentially be an attorney fee award of six figures.
A federal lawsuit was filed in Atlanta, where body cam footage shows Clayton County Police Officer Gregory Tillman breaking down a woman’s door and slamming her to the ground after she refused to give a chess set back to a man who had moved out. All of this happened in front of the woman’s son.
According to news reports, this involved her friend’s ex-boyfriend, who showed up claiming that he had left some items there, including a remote control and a chess set. He called 911 after she refused to let him inside her home. She believed that the man had previously been arrested on domestic violence related charges involving her friend.
The newly-released boy cam footage shows the officer banging down the door, shouting, and then using force against the homeowner. Her son was home at the time of the attack and is heard on the body cam video pleading with the officer: ‘Hey, sir. My mom got health problems, sir.’ The video shows the officer kicking the homeowner’s legs fro under her, forcing her to fall to the floor, while the officer attempted to handcuff her.
Ultimately the officer was disciplined. The county’s oversight board first voted to terminate Officer Tillman. But then, they changed their mind and voted to give him a three-day suspension, with additional training.
The original incident happened in 2019. However, it just hit the news in the past day or so. So I looked up the pending case on pacer and pulled a couple of the case documents. It looks like qualified immunity was denied to Officer Tillman by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, and now the officer is appealing, begging the Circuit Court for his qualified immunity.
I pulled the Amended Complaint which revealed a few more details. Apparently the guy told 911 that he had been “staying” at the residence. Upon the officer’s arrival, the homeowner told Tillman that the man was no longer welcome in her home, and that his belongings had been removed the day before. An argument between Officer Tillman and the homeowner ensued. She asked for his name and badge number. He refused to tell her. At her request, the homeowner’s son called for a supervisor.
Officer Tillman then is alleged to have informed the guy trying to get inside the home that, he could come and go as he pleased, until properly evicted from the house. The homeowner then announced that she was closing her door until the supervisor arrived. Instead however, without saying a word, Officer Tillman pushed with his shoulder to prevent the door from being closed. She did manage to get it closed.
Suddenly, Officer Tillman used his shoulder to break down the home’s front door out of its frame, forcibly entering the home. He grabbed the homeowner, wrenched both of her arms behind her body, and swept her legs to the ground. He then placed a knee on her back and roughly handcuffed her.
After the supervisor arrived, the handcuffs were removed and the homeowner was treated by EMS. Then she was cited on charges of misdemeanor obstruction and criminal trespass, which were later dismissed.
After the supervisor arrived, he informed the guy trying to get in that he couldn’t get inside without a court order. When the supervisor asked Officer Tillman why he knocked down the door, Tillman responded, “because we had the charge of criminal trespass” and because “he feared for his safety” because he “didn’t know what was behind the door.”
An internal investigation by the agency found that Officer Tillman lacked probable cause to arrest or charge the homeowner, and that she was within her right to refuse entry to both the officer and the guy looking for his remote control and chess set.
As we’ve discussed many times before, law enforcement entries into our castles are presumptively unconstitutional. The only two exceptions are valid consent and exigent circumstances. He clearly didn’t have consent. Nor was there any exigent circumstances, as the Court pointed out in the order denying the officer qualified immunity, which I’ll post up at the blog post on this. So there’s a clear-cut Fourth Amendment violation for the entry. Then you can add another one for the arrest inside the home – both because it lacked probable cause and because it occurred in the absence of an arrest warrant. Even with probable cause, an officer still must have an arrest warrant to arrest someone inside their home.
Was there also an excessive force violation? As the Court pointed out in its order, Officer Tillman’s claim that the homeowner posed a threat to him is “unpersuasive.” Frankly, this is a pretty easy one, too. He busted down her door and attacked her. She just wanted to be left alone. He had no probable cause to believe that she had committed any crime. While there’s always a possibility that any homeowner could be armed behind their front door, that’s ever the more reason to not burglarize their homes.
Is there a constitutionally protected right to flash your lights at oncoming traffic, in order to warn them of an approaching speed trap? There’s remarkably few rulings out there on this issue, and a quick search reveals very little guidance from the judiciary and the legal community. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a common occurrence. I hear about it from time-to-time and there’s a few instances out there if it being captured on video. Perhaps my favorite is an old video from the guy they called the Godfather of First Amendment auditors, Jeff Grey.
This occurred in Florida, near Jacksonville, on I-10, and involves a classic Florida speed trap, full of unnecessary government employees who have nothing else better to do than to harass people and flex their egos and authority. Jeff sets the trap with the bait. And the cops can’t resist it.
Here’s the original video:
What we have here is an acknowledgment that Jeff was subjected to a traffic stop as a sole result of his flashing his lights. There’s no allegation of speeding, seat belt, or other pretext for the stop. Remember: every traffic stop is already an investigative detention, by definition, and therefore reasonable suspicion must be present to justify the invasion of Fourth Amendment protections. Now, reasonable suspicion is usually pretty easy for even the dumbest of police officers to articulate, which encourages them to lie. They just have to say they saw you violate some traffic law. Here, had they known ahead of time who they were dealing with, they probably would have made something else up. But the first thing that popped out was feigned concern about protecting or helping Jeff. They know that’s a lie. Jeff knows that’s a lie. They know that Jeff knows that’s a lie.
If this were true, there would be no Fourth Amendment justification to continue to detain Jeff. However, the footage clearly shows that they indeed continue to detain him. What likely happens is that the officers now go back to their police cruisers, and discuss the situation. Now they’re aware that Jeff was filming them. For police officers who were already willing to lie about the reason they pulled Jeff over, this could be a problem. As you’ll see, their strategy is to stop the recording. But Jeff refuses, calling their bluff.
Even now in 2022, there’s still no clear federal law on the issue on whether there’s a federally protected First Amended right to warn oncoming traffic about a speed trap. But there’s a wealth of clearly established law on the right not to be detained by the police in the absence of reasonable suspicion. If the officers in Jeff’s video had been honest about the reason they were pulling Jeff over, and if they were able to point to a Florida statute he was violating, they may have been justified in their actions, or at the very least entitled to qualified immunity. However, they basically admitted that they pulled him over in retaliation for warning other motorists, without bothering even to lie about a pretextual reason for doing so, thereafter repeatedly trying to intimidate him into turning off his camera.
There are no Supreme Court cases on this. There are no federal appellate cases, to my knowledge. There are only a couple of U.S. District Court opinions, and a couple of state circuit court opinions. There was a 2019 memorandum opinion from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin holding that a policy and practice of stopping, detaining, and citing drivers who flash their headlights to warn oncoming drivers of a speed trap violates his right to free speech under the First Amendment. This was Obriecht v. Splinter.
The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” It protects conduct, symbols, and non-verbal communication that express or convey a particularized message reasonably understood by viewers. Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 404-06 (1989). Flashing headlights could easily be placed into the category of expressive conduct. In the Obriecht v. Splinter case, this point was conceded by the state. However, even expressive conduct may be regulate by the government. For example, speech that incites or produces “imminent lawless action,” Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 447 (1969), or is integral to criminal conduct, such as fighting words, threats, and solicitations, United States v. White, 610 F.3d 956, 960 (7th Cir. 2010), is not protected by the First Amendment.
Another similar case from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri held in 2014 that this conduct was entitled to protection under the First Amendment. (Elli v. City of Ellisville, Mo). At least two state circuit courts have found that drivers have a constitutional right to flash their headlights. (State of Oregon v. Hill (2014); State v. Walker (Tenn. 2003)).
The problem with the lack of precedent on this issue leads to a big problem for potential plaintiffs: qualified immunity. The standard for qualified immunity requires establishing that the police officer violated clearly established law. Where there is almost no established case law, that’s going to be a tough task.
However, as we saw from Jeff’s video, if police are going to pull people over for flashing their lights at other motorists, they need to be honest about what they’re doing, and identify a state or local statute they allege is violated by the relevant conduct. Then, the victim of that stop can mount a First Amendment challenge. This is how the law will become clearly established. At the same time, if they’re not being honest, only video footage is going to protect the motorist from pre-textual lies, which if documented, will establish liability for a Fourth Amendment violation, with no good argument for qualified immunity.
Big update in Chris Wiest’s case in Kentucky, where several Kentucky police officers are being held accountable for their misconduct. Tonight he joined me for a live video, and we discussed developments in the case, at length. This is the case where the officers denied (under oath) striking the guy they were arresting, later finding out that video footage showed otherwise. This led to Officer Thomas Czartorski later being charged with perjury.
Update video with the footage:
Here’s the recent court order in the case, discussed in the videos:
In 2019, on a rainy April night in Sterling Heights, Michigan, 18- year-old Logan Davis had just gotten off work at a sandwich shop and was waiting under a nearby awning for his dad to pick him up and drive him home. A few minutes later, Davis ended up hand-cuffed in the back of a Sterling Heights police cruiser, having been forcibly taken to the ground and arrested for loitering. Davis subsequently sued the City of Sterling Heights and Officer Jeremy Walleman for unlawful arrest in federal court.
Recently, the federal court issued a memorandum opinion denying Officer Walleman qualified immunity. So we have both a video of what happened, and the subsequent opinion from a federal court after examining the video and sworn deposition testimony.
As I’ve explained many times before, you have stronger Fourth Amendment protections as a pedestrian, as opposed to an occupant of a vehicle. A warrantless arrest, like the one at issue here, is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment if supported by “probable cause to believe that a criminal offense has been or is being committed.” An officer has probable cause “only when he discovers reasonably reliable information” that that an individual has committed or is committing a crime.
Where an officer lacks probable cause but possesses a reasonable and articulable suspicion that a person has been involved in criminal activity, he or she may conduct an investigative “Terry” stop and briefly detain that person to investigate the circumstances. During a Terry stop, an officer may request that a suspect identify him or herself, and the suspect does not have a Fourth Amendment right to refuse the request. Additionally, a state may criminalize refusal to provide identification during a Terry stop.
Section 35-17 of the Sterling Heights’ City Code of Ordinances prohibits loitering and provides that prior to making an arrest for loitering, the officer must provide the individual with an opportunity to dispel any concern or alarm – which can be accomplished by the individual identifying themselves and providing a reason for their presence.
Section 35-19(B)(4) of the City Code provides that it’s a violation to fail to produce identification upon the request of an officer who is investigating possible unlawful conduct.
If Officer Walleman had reasonable suspicion to investigate Davis for loitering under § 35-17, he could lawfully order Davis to produce identification then, under § 35-19(B)(4), arrest him if he refused. To conduct an investigatory stop, reasonable suspicion requires that an officer have more than a hunch—they must possess a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the individual of criminal activity. Such a determination of probable cause or reasonable suspicion must be based on the totality of circumstances, considering “both the inculpatory and exculpatory evidence”— that is, an officer “cannot simply turn a blind eye toward evidence favorable to the accused,” nor “ignore information which becomes available in the course of routine investigations.”
In denying qualified immunity to Officer Walleman, the federal court held that, even if reasonable suspicion to investigate Davis for loitering existed early in the encounter—and it is not clear that it did—any reasonable suspicion, even arguable reasonable suspicion, was dispelled when Davis explained to Officer Walleman why he was standing where he was and showed Officer Walleman his Firehouse Subs shirt and badge. After that point, a jury could conclude, no reasonable officer would believe they had a justified suspicion of unlawful loitering, and without such a basis, Officer Walleman no longer had the legal authority to demand Davis’ identification and arrest him if he refused.
The Court pointed out that Davis was standing near Firehouse Subs, wearing a Firehouse Subs shirt, which he showed to the officer, and that more specifically, he was standing under the Dickey’s BBQ doors because there was an awning – and it was raining. He is observed on the video not acting suspiciously – not peering in windows, but just waiting.
It always comes down to this though: that police officers can’t seem to do anything, or talk to anybody, without forcibly demanding an ID from people. If people refuse, it becomes time to teach a lesson about the authority of government – a power trip. However, two can play at that game. Now a jury gets to decide whether government did have that authority. Perhaps it would be easier to just be a polite public servant and use common sense.
You may have seen the video I posted last week of police harassing private citizens on their own front porch here in West Virginia. This sort of behavior happens all the time: cops show up to a private residence, they knock on the door. What are your rights in that situation? What rights to the police have to do what they’re doing? Let’s make some things clear.
For instance, in the McDowell County video I just posted, the officer can be heard multiple times in the body cam footage, claiming that he had reasonable suspicion to justify his behavior, based on the fact that he found what he believed to be four marijuana plants near the home. Based on that, the officer demanded the name and birthdate of the property owner, who was standing on the porch.
Can police officers, assuming they have reasonable suspicion to believe that a crime was committed, and the property owner on the front porch may have committed it, demand identification under penalty of arrest for obstruction for noncompliance? That’s what ended up happening, of course, as you’ll see if you watch the footage of what happened to Jason Tartt.
The too-long-didn’t-watch answer is no. If police officers are on your private property, that changes things. Cops are trained on the requirement for reasonable suspicion – to develop some reasonable suspicion they can articulate, even if total B.S., and then that entitles them to forcibly demand identification from whomever they deem a suspect. That is generally how things work in public places – but not on private property, especially a home.
Let’s look at this scenario of police on your front porch and make sure we’re all on the same page about what the law is, and what the law is not, for both police and the occupants of private property.
According to the 1980 Supreme Court opinion in Payton v. New York, in order to legally arrest someone in a home, rather than in a public place, absent consent or exigent circumstances, police officers must have a warrant.
According to the 1984 Supreme Court opinion in Oliver v. United States, the heightened Fourth Amendment protections of the home extend beyond just the interior of the home itself into what’s called the “curtilage” of the home, which is the land immediately surrounding and associated with the home. Why? Because according to the Supreme Court, the curtilage is considered part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes. The Fourth Circuit, where the porch video occurred, just in 2015 issued an opinion holding that a warrantless search of curtilage is presumed to be unreasonable. (Covey v. Assessor of Ohio County).
In the 2013 Supreme Court opinion of Florida v. Jardines, the Court held that a search undoubtedly occurs when the government, without a warrant, obtains information by physically intruding within the curtilage of a house, which in that actual case involved a home’s front porch. The Court cautioned that a search occurs unless a homeowner has explicitly or implicitly sanctioned the government’s physical intrusion into the constitutionally protected area, i.e., the yard and/or porch of the home.
Some of these broad Supreme Court holdings have been interpreted in slightly different ways in different federal appellate circuits. The porch video from last week was from West Virginia, which is in the Fourth Circuit.
The Fourth Circuit made clear as early as 2001 that police officers will be denied qualified immunity for failing to comprehend that they have no right to enter a home’s curtilage to make an investigation based on reasonable suspicion. (Rogers v. Pendleton). They have no “right.” All they can do is engage in what’s called a “knock and talk.” This is the scenario in the large majority of these front door encounters with police.
That’s right… Police officers in the Fourth Circuit were cautioned in 2001 that they would be denied qualified immunity for ignorantly believing the existence of reasonable suspicion allowed the to enter and remain in a homeowner’s curtilage without consent of the homeowner. Yet it seems that it’s still being taught to officers, and being used to arrest people.
Under the “knock and talk” exception to the warrant requirement, a police officer not armed with a warrant may approach a home and knock, precisely because that is “no more than any private citizen might do.” This means there is an “implicit license . . . to approach the home by the front path, knock promptly, wait briefly to be received, and then (absent invitation to linger longer) leave.” An officer may also bypass the front door (or another entry point usually used by visitors) when circumstances reasonably indicate that the officer might find the homeowner elsewhere on the property. “Critically, however, the right to knock and talk does not entail a right to conduct a general investigation of the home’s curtilage.”
The obvious difference between a police officer and a young girl selling girl scout cookies, is that many, if not most, homeowners have no idea whether they have any right to refuse to answer the door, or to ask the person to leave. Police like it this way. They don’t inform people of these rights, and the courts have ruled that they have no legal obligation to do so. You have to inform yourself and spread the word.
Police officers, and anyone else really, have an implied license to come onto your property and knock on your door. This implied license can be revoked. Homeowners can prevent ordinary citizens and police officers alike from conducting a knock and talk by revoking their implied license to be there. However, few citizens know that an implied license exists. Generally, the courts require that a homeowner do so by clear demonstrations or express orders. For instance, asking someone to leave or refusing to answer questions.
What about no trespassing signs? This is a topic of dispute, and can vary by federal circuit. The Tenth Circuit had a particularly bad opinion on this in the Carloss case, which resulted in one law professor creating “LAWn” signs providing notice to the police that their implied license to perform a knock and talk at the address is revoked. No trespassing can be ambiguous. One could certainly be more specific and avoid the grey area. Of course, another option is verbally telling the police that they’re not welcome and ask them to leave. That’s hard for a lot of people to do. Police know this and use it against you.
Back to the McDowell County porch case, the officer thought he was smart saying he had reasonable suspicion, and now you have to provide identification or else get arrested for obstruction. But his own footage dooms his defense. He’s well inside private property. The homeowners have clearly expressed that they were afraid of him, asking for his name, which he refused. He arrested their landlord by physically seizing him on the front porch, well within the home’s curtilage, without probable cause and a warrant. The video disproves any later claim of exigent circumstances. More than that – I haven’t shown this footage yet – but he then radioes his superiors on the drive to jail – telling them repeatedly what he had done. There is obviously either a policy of civil rights violations in this department, or systematic ignorance, or both.
It’s a relaxing summer afternoon. You’re visiting family about 15 minutes away from your home. You locked your doors before you left, like you always do. Your three dogs are safely secured inside your house. All of a sudden you get a notification from your Ring doorbell security camera, at your front door. You see two police officers and some other stranger standing on your doorstep. They just busted the lock off your front door. They’re in the process of entering your home. You have three dogs in the house and you immediately have awful thoughts racing through your head about police officers and dogs. Not knowing what else to do, and having no idea what’s happening, you confront them using the doorbell’s audio speaker. They tell you that they’re there to evict you. You have no idea what they’re talking about.
This was the experience of Jennifer Michele of Land O’Lakes, Florida, in Pasco County. It was a complete surprise to her, given the fact that she had no knowledge of any eviction proceedings against her. She had been living there for 13 years. She posted this footage to Tik Tok, and it went viral. Here it is…
The Maxim that “a man’s house is his castle” is older than our Republic, and deeply rooted in Anglo-American jurisprudence. As scholars have observed, it protects all levels of society, down to the “poorest man living in his cottage.” It formed much of the basis of the Fourth Amendment itself. While 4th Amendment protections have eroded over time almost everywhere else – cars, schools, sidewalks, airports, and so on, it has retained its original strength in the home. The home still receives the greatest protection under the Constitution. It’s our castle. This is expanding in many states, with “castle doctrine” and “stand your ground” laws, and other self defense protections for law abiding citizens.
Searches and seizures which take place in a person’s home are presumptively unreasonable, which means they are illegal by default according to the Fourth Amendment. The only exceptions are consent and exigent circumstances, which are not at issue here.
Thus where law enforcement busts your lock off your front door, without a warrant, or in this case a valid eviction order, they violated your Fourth Amendment rights, by default application of the law. But are there any consequences? This is where qualified immunity comes in.
There are two scenarios:
1) Where the warrant or eviction order lists the homeowner’s correct address, but which is actually the wrong address. So on its face, there is a warrant for that address, but it was supposed to be a different address; or 2) where the warrant or eviction order lists an entirely different address and they just showed up and executed it at the wrong house. This could be equally applicable to arrest warrants where the wrong John Smith is arrested. Is the mistake in the warrant, or in the execution of the warrant? If the mistake is in the warrant, then how did it get there, and who was responsible? These questions are all highly important to the qualified immunity issue. The unfortunate reality is that qualified immunity is typically granted in these sorts of mistaken identity or address cases. Not always, but very frequently.
One must also remember that this is Pasco County, the same county as the video I recently posted showing the SWAT style entry into a woman’s home over a building permit inspection. That brings up what is most likely a better legal argument here, which is the existence of a policy of constitutional misconduct. This is likely not the first issue. Why is Pasco County law enforcement showing up in tactical gear, with very little information or communication, for an eviction? There may be a Monell Claim here, which would be important because a county or municipality cannot assert qualified immunity as a defense to Monell liability for a policy of constitutional violations.
The consequence of out of control government here was relatively harmless in the end. But often it’s not. Similar mistakes are often made, with tragic results. When law enforcement forcibly enters someone’s home, they do so with firearms, which often are used against occupants – either human or canine. Because, they have to get home safe at night. Nobody else does, necessarily, but they must, at all costs. Protect and serve. When you have the peace-of-mind of qualified immunity, you can just act first and sort out the damage later. Or, as we used to say in football, “let the paramedics sort them out.”
On July 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit released a published opinion in the case of Sylvia Gonzalez v. Edward Trevino, Mayor of Castle Hills that now appears to be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. This is an important First Amendment Retaliation case where qualified immunity is the key issue. Qualified immunity is the most important issue in the fight for the civil rights of the American people. It must be defeated, which is why you need to learn about cases like this, which the media will never tell you about.
The case is being litigated by the Institute for Justice. They filed suit for the plaintiff, Sylvia Gonzalez, a retired resident of Castle Hills, Texas, who decided to run for city council, and became the first Hispanic councilwoman in Castle Hills history. I spoke with the Institute of Justice attorneys litigating this case on the same day the opinion was released, and they seemed very optimistic about the future of this case at the Supreme Court.
At Ms. Gonzalez’s first council meeting, she accidentally took home with her petition which had been debated at the meeting. It was laying in her stack of paperwork. It was later discovered that the petition was in her possession, which as it turns out, was technically a misdemeanor crime. The petition sought to remove the city manager. This town has fewer than 5,000 residents. During her campaign, Gonzalez learned that many residents were unhappy with the performance of the city manager. As her first act in office, she submitted this petition to the council. It was entirely unintentional that she ended up taking the petition home with her. She was supporting this petition and had no reason to suppress it or hide it. It was purely unintentional, and it was her first meeting as a councilwoman.
Well, the city leadership was unhappy with Sylvia Gonzalez. After the mistake was discovered, the mayor, Edward Trevino, requested that a Sergeant in the Castle Hills Police Department file a criminal complaint alleging that Gonzalez took the petition without consent. The first officer to investigate, a Sergeant, determined that no crime had been committed. Well, that was unacceptable to the mayor and the chief, so they turned to a so-called “special detective.” The detective decided that Sylvia committed a violation of Texas Penal Code §§ 37.10(a)(3) and (c)(1), which provide that “[a] person commits an offense if he . . . intentionally destroys, conceals, removes, or otherwise impairs the verity, legibility, or availability of a governmental record.”
Special Detective Alex Wright obtained a warrant, and instead of using the typical procedure of obtaining a summons, rather than a warrant, for a nonviolent crime, as well as going through the district attorney’s office, the detective instead obtained a warrant and hand-delivered it to the magistrate himself. The use of this process prevented Sylvia from using the satellite booking function of the Bexar County Jail system, making her unable to avoid spending time in jail when arrested.
There is clear evidence here that this was done with a retaliatory motive, in response to Sylvia Gonzalez’s support of the petition to remove the city manager and disturb their swamp status quo. Sylvia’s arrest enabled the city leadership to remove her from office, as well as to intimidate, punish, and silence her. There was plenty evidence of this. In fact, Sylvia was charged under a statute that has never before or since been used to arrest someone in her position. A “review of the misdemeanor and felony data from Bexar County over the past decade makes it clear that the misdemeanor tampering statute has never been used in Bexar County to criminally charge someone for trying to steal a nonbinding or expressive document.” Indeed, most indictments under the statute involved fake government IDs, such as driver’s licenses, social security numbers, and green cards.
But here was the big problem: technically there was probable cause to charge her under the statute that was charged. So the question is, can law enforcement arrest and prosecute Sylvia in retaliation for her protected free speech, so long as probable cause exists to do so? In other words, this is like a mayor ordering the arrest of a political opponent for some minor crime like jaywalking, where technically the crime was committed, but where there never would have been any prosecution at all, but for retaliation against free speech. This is the dispute, and there is a split in the federal circuits.
In the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case of Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, 138 S. Ct. 1945, 1954 (2018), the Court held that a municipality could be liable under a Monell Claim where its leadership decides to selectively prosecute a particular person in retaliation for their speech. The federal circuits have differed on how broadly to interpret this holding. The Fifth Circuit, in last week’s opinion, has chosen a narrow interpretation.
The jaywalking example is the ideal example, which was discussed in the opinion:
“If an individual who has been vocally complaining about police conduct is arrested for jaywalking,” the claim should not be dismissed despite the existence of probable cause because “[i]n such a case, . . . probable cause does little to prove or disprove the causal connection between animus and injury.”
The Court “conclude[d] that the no-probable-cause requirement should not apply when a plaintiff presents objective evidence that he was arrested when otherwise similarly situated individuals not engaged in the same sort of protected speech had not been.”
Basically, their conclusion was that since no prior council-person had been prosecuted by the city for taking a petition home with them, then there was no evidence to support a theory of retaliatory selective prosecution. This is of course, absurd. This is like saying that law enforcement may engage in retaliatory prosecutions, so long as they choose a creative statute that has never been used before against the same type of defendant.
The fact is, that Sylvia Gonzalez engaged in highly protected First Amendment conduct, and that as a result of that conduct, a conspiracy of government officials took a material adverse action against her for purposes of retaliation. This is already prohibited under federal law. As the dissenting federal judge noted in his dissent, the police officers and city leadership have been on notice of a string of legal authority, dating all the way back to 1689, that it’s unconstitutional to jail people in response to their petitioning the government.
Hopefully the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn this. The Institute of Justice is doing some great work, not just in this case, but in many different cases across the country. They are likely even jumping into one of my cases, so stay tuned for that. Check out the youtube video the Institute did on the Gonzalez case, back when they first started. There’s a donation link. They need donations now, more than ever. Please donate, if you want to help fund the fight against qualified immunity and government corruption. Here’s the Institute’s video on the case, with donation link:
Here’s the district court order, which originally denied qualified immunity, and which the defendants appealed to the Fifth Circuit: