Saturday, February 19, 2011

Huff v. City of Burbank, 632 F.3d 539 (9th Cir. 2011)

The principal of a high school contacted police and informed them one of the students (Vincent Huff) had threatened to "shoot up" the school, had been absent from school for two days, and many parents had kept their children at home. In talking with the principal, officers were unable to verify the information but decided to visit the home of the student. Upon arrival, one of the officers telephoned Mrs. Huff, identified himself and said he wanted to talk to her. She agreed, opened the door and came out with her son Vincent. Asked by the officers if any guns were in the house, she said she would get her husband and "went" into the house.
The officers, fearing she fled inside to obtain a weapon, entered the house and spoke to the husband for  approximately ten minutes. Satisfied the rumor was not credible, the officers left the house without arresting anyone and without searching.
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In response to a defense motion for summary judgment, the U.S. District Court found the conduct of the officers reasonable and no violation of the Fourth Amendment occurred .  On appeal, a 2-1 majority of the 9th Circuit panel reversed on grounds the entry was without probable cause, and no exigency occurred warranting entry into the house.

According to the majority, the entry without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment and no exigency existed to justify an exception to the warrant requirement.  As the dissenting judge points out, the majority "sanitizes" the evidence.  The officer did not testify Mrs. Huff "went" into the house from the outside, she "ran" inside without explanation.  The dissent cites Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398 (2006) for the proposition that officers can enter a house without a warrant if based on "officer safety."

What should the officers have done after hearing from a school principal that one of her students reportedly would "shoot up" the school?  Ignore the unverified information? And if someone did "shoot up" the school, who would be responsible for not investigating?

Considering all the student deaths by gunshot having occurred recently, the most reasonable option for police is questioning the student.  Officers remained outside the house talking to Mrs. Huff and made no entry until she fled inside.  The officers did not threaten her or engage in any conduct warranting flight. Unaware of her goal, the officers could stand outside and hope no one returned with a gun, or enter to prevent any danger. This is common sense and "reasonable" conduct the Fourth Amendment requires. 

The officers remained in the house only ten minutes, neither arrested nor searched anyone, and departed.  In the litigation, (this case arose on summary judgment) how much money should a jury give the plaintiffs?  This is the kind of frivolous litigation that should result in imposition of attorney fees on counsel who filed this case on evidence of nothing more than inconvenience to the plaintiffs.

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