Updated 5:07 p.m.
Reversing a trial judge's ruling in Washington, a federal appeals court here said a group of officers who participated in a nighttime, unannounced search warrant are shielded from liability.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said in its decision the Metropolitan Police Department officers who participated in the execution of the warrant, in a murder investigation, are entitled to qualified immunity.
The officers' "no knock" entry into a suspect's house, and the fact the raid was conducted at night, did not violate clearly established law, the D.C. Circuit panel said. The court overturned a trial judge's decision that favored the plaintiffs, who sued over alleged injuries sustained in the service of the warrant.
The appeals court, however, did not reach the merits of whether the August 2008 search in Northeast Washington violated Fourth Amendment rights to protection against unlawful search and seizure. One judge on the panel said the potential Fourth Amendment violation is a "close question."
The D.C. Circuit panel‹Judges Merrick Garland and Janice Rogers Brown, and Senior Judge Harry Edwards‹said the law was not so clearly established that the officers¹ no-knock warrant was unconstitutional.
"[W]ere the applicable legal rules so clearly established that any reasonable officer would have been aware that a no-knock entry of 1312 Queen Street would violate the Fourth Amendment? We think not," the court said.
The appeals court also said the execution of the warrant at night did not violate clearly established law. The warrant did not prohibit a nighttime execution.
District law, however, says that in the absence of "express authorization" on the warrant, any raid must happen in daylight. D.C. Superior Court Judge John Hess, who signed the search warrant at issue, did not circle day or night on the warrant. The warrant, then, was silent on when it could be executed.
"We have little trouble in concluding that there is no clearly established law under the Fourth Amendment that prohibits the nighttime execution of a warrant, where, as here, the warrant does not prohibit such a search," the appeals court said.
U.S. District Judge James Gwin, who ruled the officers are not eligible for qualified immunity, said in his decision last year that "because the magistrate judge did not strike out either the daytime or anytime provision on the search warrant and the affidavit did not request or provide any evidence justifying a nighttime search, the warrant issued only authorized a daytime search."
The American Civil Liberties Union and Jenner & Block represented the plaintiffs, Jerry YoungBey and Rubin Butler.
Jenner associate James Cox in Washington, who argued for the plaintiffs in the D.C. Circuit, said this afternoon: "Although we are disappointed by the result, the claims that the Court of Appeals addressed were only a few of the claims at issue in the case. We and the ACLU are looking forward to the opportunity to put the facts of the search before a jury and hopefully to get Ms. YoungBey and Mr. Butler the relief they deserve."
Spitzer and Cox called the 4 a.m. raid in 2008 a "home invasion" in which windows were smashed and a room set on fire from the police use of "flash-bang" grenades." Twenty-one officers detained two residents--neither was a suspect in the underlying homicide--at gunpoint.
The authorities were looking for a homicide suspect who, according to the plaintiffs' lawyers, had not lived at the house since 2004.
"Generalized claims that a murder suspect, a drug dealer, or an armed robber might be violent and be at the home to be searched, or that the item sought is a firearm, are insufficient," the plaintiffs' lawyers said. "The officers must reasonably believe that a no-knock entry is needed to protect their safety based on the particular facts."