Failure to Have Policy on a Critical TaskSearch and Seizure May Lead to Liability
Solis v. City of Columbus, 319 F.Supp. 2d 797 (S.D. Ohio 2004), provides an example of potential agency liability for the failure to have a policy in place that will protect the rights of citizens in their homes. Solis involved the execution of a search warrant by a SWAT team following an investigation conducted by Detective Cox.
Detective Cox was working with an informant who provided information regarding the whereabouts of stolen goods taken in several home invasions. According to the informant, the suspect, Walker, was storing some of the stolen goods in his home located at 123 Avondale Ave. in Columbus and was storing some of the stolen goods at the home of a friend who lived in a house directly behind Walker’s. The informant did not know the address of Walker’s friend’s house and the detectives did not want to drive by to get the address for fear of spooking the suspect. Prior to getting a warrant, the SWAT team scouted the location and informed Detective Cox, that the house described by the informant was located at 120 Avondale Ave. The informant had told the detective that Walker always carried a Ruger handgun thus, leading to the decision to use the SWAT team.
On the day the search warrant was executed, Detective Cox observed the SWAT team lined up and realized they may have the wrong house. The SWAT team conducted a dynamic entry in executing the no-knock search warrant, complete with a flash-bang. Carmen Solis, age 12 was home with her mom, Nicole Solis, who was 8 ½ months pregnant. It was alleged that the officers "held guns to Nicole and Carmen Solis’s heads, forced them to the ground, handcuffed them, and subjected them to verbal abuse. The mother and daughter were kept in handcuffs for 45 minutes.
In analyzing the claims against the city, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ contention that the City is constitutionally required to have a policy that demands, in all instances, personal visual verification of a search warrant address by the officer in charge of an investigation. The current written policy regarding verification of search warrant addresses requires a supervisor to review a search warrant prior to its submission to the court to ‘insure the location listed on the warrant is correct’" The court then went on to assert that this was not simply a run of the mill search warrant execution. This was a no-knock warrant utilizing a SWAT team, the most intrusive type of home entry that police conduct. The court continued: “The City clearly was on notice that officers going to the wrong address is a recurring problem in the execution of search warrants, particularly no-knock search warrants.” The court cited cases and other publication of police executing no-knock warrants at wrong locations.
The court concluded: “When such an important right is at issue as the right to be secure in one’s home from an unannounced, forcible official entry and search, and when there is such a potential for mistakes – mistakes, as illustrated above, that so readily can have tragic consequences – then a municipality is required to exercise more than usual care.” Thus, in the case of no-knock warrants, the city should have a policy in place to ensure that the police are entering the correct address, “the court has no problem in concluding that a jury could find the City to have been deliberately indifferent to the rights of its inhabitants by failing to have such a policy.”
The court’s conclusion distinguishes no-knock warrants from all others and determined that a city, town or county could be liable for failing to have a policy in place that ensures that the police are entering the correct address.
Action Step: In policy covering search warrants, add provision for address verification in cases of No Knock Warrants.