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.”