19 February 2011

Suit Charges D.C. Police Executed Search Warrant at "Wrong" Apartment

From The Blog of Legal Times:
A man and his wife are suing the Metropolitan Police Department for $1 million in damages for allegedly barging into and searching the wrong apartment during a drug investigation last year in Southeast Washington.

The suit, filed in Washington's federal trial court this week, alleges civil and constitutional violations. The police did not take anything from the home of Danny Costello and his wife, Gai Nguyen, according to court records.

“The police officers had a duty, before attempting to execute their search warrant, to make sure that they were executing the warrant only for the apartment the warrant authorized entry,” the couples’ attorney, Wendell Robinson, said in the complaint [.pdf]. “But the police officers negligently, intentionally, willfully, wantonly, and maliciously, forcibly entered the plaintiffs’ apartment without sufficient evidence that it was apartment #305.'
My first thought when reading through this article was to shrug off this lawsuit dismissively. On second thought, truly innocent victims don't have an exclusionary rule to protect them. What is the protection against a Fourth Amendment violation for the innocent? A complaint or lawsuit, so this is it. Ok, a little more sympathy for the man and his wife. Enough sympathy that I'm willing to read the complaint.

The man and his wife live in Apartment #305. Except there is no number on their door. The warrant was for #305. The police saw #304 on the door across the hallway and assumed that the door with no number was #305 (as it turns out, it was). So the man and his wife are complaining that that "the police officers negligently, intentionally, willfully, wantonly, and maliciously, forcibly entered the plaintiffs’ apartment without sufficient evidence that it was apartment #305." Except that it actually was #305.

They don't seem to be complaining that the information to get the warrant was invalid (wherever it came from), but that their rights were violated when the police didn't check to be sure that what they thought was #305 was actually #305. I have no idea if they had a "no knock" warrant because of the drug allegations (or even if DC allows "no knock" warrants), but the police did appear to violate their rights by knocking down the door without announcing or warning of their presence.

All in all, a very odd case.
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