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Knock, knock – Don’t come in

What officers claimed was hostile behavior, the court determined was the plaintiff pressing to exercise his right to remain in his home and require a warrant for entry

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Reed v. Campbell County, 2023 WL 5604200 (6th Cir. 2023)

A 911 caller reported, “The people that live behind me, I don’t know if they’re having a domestic dispute or what,” and saying she “just heard him yelling and what sounds like him hitting something. I don’t know if he’s hitting dogs or if he’s hitting humans.” Two officers were sent to the address “for a domestic. Caller’s advising it sounds…outside, verbal and physical.”

When they arrived, neither officer saw or heard any disturbance. One officer walked around the side of the house while another looked through the front window. The officers knocked on the front door. They could see a man walking toward the door and a woman standing in the background. The woman did not appear to be injured or crying.

Robert Reed opened the door; one officer asked, “Do you mind stepping out here and talking to me for a second, sir?” Reed asked whether the officers had a warrant. When the officer replied, “No,” Reed asked, “What is this about?” The officer explained, “Somebody called and said that somebody was fighting and arguing over here.” Reed told the officers there was no fight at his residence. The officer then asked if anyone else was inside the house. Reed replied, “Yes, but do you got a warrant?” and said the officers “don’t have probable cause.”

The officer responded that they did have probable cause and had been “nothing but nice and respectful.” Reed replied, “I know, but I just don’t want to deal with any officers in my house. I don’t know who called; I don’t really care.” The officer told Reed, “If there’s any other adults in the house, I need to talk to them.” Then the officer told Reed, “We can come in, because it’s called exigent circumstances.” Reed replied, “If you don’t have a warrant, goodbye,” and closed the door.

As Reed closed the door, the officer warned him, “Don’t do that.” The second officer then kicked the door down and shouted, “Open the g–d— door!” The second officer stepped into the house, drew his gun and pointed it at Reed’s head before holstering his gun, grabbing Reed and pulling him outside. The first officer grabbed Reed’s arm, led him to the driveway and pushed him against a car. When the officer told Reed to turn around, Reed refused and again asked if the officers had a warrant. The officer physically turned Reed around and frisked him. Other officers arrived and spoke with members of Reed’s family, who had emerged from the home. Confirming that all the family members were safe, the officers left the scene. No charges were ever filed against Reed.

Reed sued, alleging excessive force, unlawful entry, false arrest, unlawful Terry detention, a Monell claim for failure to train, assault and battery, common law false arrest/imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and punitive damages. The trial court dismissed the claims against Campbell County and against the officers in their official capacities; but declined to grant qualified immunity to the officers on the unlawful-entry, excessive-force and false-arrest claims.

If public or officer safety is threatened, officers may enter a home or other building and conduct whatever search is necessary to quell the threat (Warden v. Hayden, 387 U.S. 294 (1967)). There are four general categories of exigent circumstances that justify warrantless entries:

  • Hot pursuit of a fleeing felon
  • Imminent destruction of evidence
  • The need to prevent a suspect’s escape
  • A risk of danger to the police or the public

Generally, cases where officers are acting as community caretakers are analyzed as “emergency aid” situations. However, the Supreme Court has held that whether an officer’s motivation for entering is to arrest persons and gather evidence, prevent an injury, or assist the injured is irrelevant as long as the circumstances objectively justify the entry (Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398 (2006)). Though “officers do not need ironclad proof of a likely serious, life-threatening injury to invoke the emergency aid exception, they must have an objectively reasonable basis for believing that a person within the house is in need of immediate aid.”

The issue for the appellate court was to determine whether a “reasonable jury could believe that exigent circumstances existed that would have excused the lack of a warrant.” The court considered whether the officers had an “objectively reasonable basis for believing that a person within the house is in need of immediate aid.” The appellate court held the officers’ entry was not justified by exigent circumstances.

The officers testified the woman in Reed’s house looked “timid” and they feared Reed might retaliate against the woman if he believed she made the 911 call. The court observed the “presence of a woman inside a home who appeared ‘timid’ to a police officer, without more, does not constitute exigent circumstances.” One officer stated Reed was hostile and he feared Reed would arm himself. The court noted a jury viewing the body-worn camera recordings could easily believe Reed was not, in fact, hostile. The court held the vague 911 call of sounds of yelling and hitting of dogs or humans did not justify entry without a warrant. When the officers arrived, they saw or heard nothing substantiating the 911 report.

The court also determined the temporary forcible removal of Reed from his home and his subsequent detention were not justified. The only crime Reed could have possibly committed would be obstructing an officer, which is a misdemeanor violation. And unless there is an actual exigency, an officer cannot enter a residence for the purpose of making a warrantless felony (or misdemeanor) arrest (Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1980)). There is a particularly heavy burden in court to show that an entry into a home to effect a warrantless arrest is based on sufficient probable cause and exigent circumstances (Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740 (1984)).

Considering whether aiming a gun at Reed’s head was an excessive use of force, the court observed that any crime Reed might have been suspected of committing was “minimal.” The court held the officers “had no reasonable basis to believe that Reed posed a threat to safety” and described aiming a gun at Reed’s head as “a considerable use of force.”

What the officers claimed was hostile behavior, the court determined was Reed pressing to exercise his right to remain in his home and require a warrant for entry. Reed’s refusal to call the other residents to come to speak with the officers or to come outside was “passive resistance that was not sufficient to legitimize the officer’s use of force.” Nor did the court recognize the officers’ suggestion that Reed could have obtained a weapon: “We do not credit an officer’s subjective fear that an individual has a weapon where objective indicia are absent.”

A dissenting judge opined the officers should have been granted qualified immunity because the law was not clearly established on whether officers investigating reported domestic physical abuse could insist on talking with possible victims. The dissenting judge agreed with the majority that the use of force was unreasonable and that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity on that claim.

Read more Ken Wallentine case reviews here.

Ken Wallentine is the chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former chief of law enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.