Police officers arrived at a gym on a noise complaint. The gym owner expressed his displeasure at the officers’ presence. As they started to detain him, he went back into his gym and told the officers they could not enter. But they did enter and tased him and took him to the ground, and arrested him. Here’s the issue. The Fourth Amendment does not allow police to go inside your home and arrest you without a warrant. But what about your business? Did they need a warrant under the Fourth Amendment to arrest this gym owner?
Here’s yet another video of police officers detaining or arresting a man’s wife, in order to coerce him into complying with their demands – whether legal or not. Last time, this happened in Georgia. But this time, we’re in Shawnee, Oklahoma. The Oklahoman originally reported on this incident and provided the video footage. Once again, most people misunderstand the application of the Fourth Amendment in and around the “curtilage” of a home.
On March 18 at 1:15 a.m., the Calloway County Sheriff’s Department, in Kentucky, arrived at a private residence with an arrest warrant for a guy who did not reside at the residence, but whose vehicle was parked in the yard, undergoing maintenance by the homeowner. When the footage turns on, you’ll see police walking towards the husband slash homeowner. Then you’ll see the man’s wife come outside and ask for a warrant and also for the officers to leave the property.
This raises constitutional issues about whether law enforcement can enter and remain in someone’s front yard under these circumstances, where the home’s residents are present and asking them to leave. And where there is no arrest warrant for the home’s residents – nor a search warrant for that home? This also raises issues about whether police can detain those residents, including their guests, without their consent and in the absence of a search warrant? This is a common issue that most people misunderstand – especially police. Let’s look at this footage, which you haven’t seen anywhere else, and clear up the legal rights at issue.
NOTE: This footage was submitted anonymously and I really have no idea what the outcome was in the criminal case, or otherwise. One would hope that no convictions resulted from this, for reasons I explain in the video, as well as below….
Some of the applicable law discussed in the video:
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.
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.
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.
Tanner Rhinehart of Newark, Ohio, taunted the local police on their Facebook page after they failed to capture him on an arrest warrant. Eventually they caught up to him and taunted him right back. Here’s the bodycam footage.
Here are some screenshots of the social media interactions:
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.