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February 13, 2012

Ryburn v. Huff

My attention was caught by this article about a Supreme Court decision involving possible gun ownership and warrantless entry by police. A combo of 4th amendment and possibly 2nd amendment rights would be enough to get me to read an article like this, but when I saw it was written by two attorneys, Kim Cowell and Lala Kahramanian, who are with Meyers Nave, my attention level went up a couple of notches. So I went to the kitchen, got a grain of salt and brought that on a little saucer back to my computer, just in case.

The Supreme Court decision is a reversal of a Ninth Circuit decision. The facts of the case, as summarized by the Meyers Nave attorneys are as follows:

  • The principal at a Burbank high school reported to the Burbank Police that a student was rumored [passive voice] to have written a letter threatening to shoot up the school. The principal asked for an investigation.
  • Police learned that the student had been the object of bullying and had been absent from school for two days.
  • The police went to the student's home. There was no response to their knocks at the door. A call to the land line phone in the home went unanswered. The police officers could hear it ringing inside the home.
  • The police then called the cell phone of the student's mother. She answered and told the police that she was inside the house with her son. The police asked her to come out to speak to them. She hung up the phone and came outside with her son.
  • The police officer explained why he was there. "The student appeared to be aware of the threats and he stated, 'I can’t believe you’re here for that.'"
  • Police asked to continue the interview inside the house. The mother refused to move the interview into the house.
  • "Based on his experience while working at the juvenile bureau, the Sergeant thought it was extremely unusual that a parent would decline a request to interview the juvenile inside the home."
  • "He also found it odd that the mother never inquired about the officers' reason for the visit."
  • The police sergeant asked if there were any guns in the house. "At this point, the mother immediately turned around and ran inside her house."
  • The sergeant followed the mother into the house. "He was concerned about the safety of the occupants and the other officers." The officer with the sergeant also entered the house due to his concern for the safety of the sergeant. Then the son entered the house. Then two other police officers entered the house. (Total of 4 uniforms in the house, in case you lost count.)
  • The police all remained in the living room. The student's father entered the room and "challenged the officers' authority to be there." The police were inside the house for no more than 10 minutes, conducted no search and concluded that the rumor (to shoot up the school) was false.
  • The parents sued the police, asserting that the warrantless entry into their home violated the 4th amendment.
  • The initial decision favored the police. "the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because the mother's odd behavior, combined with the information the officers gathered at the school, could have led reasonable officers to believe 'that there could be weapons inside the house, and that family members or the officers themselves were in danger.'"
  • The Ninth Circuit disagreed, saying "any belief that the officers or other family members were in serious, imminent harm would have been objectively unreasonable, given that the mother merely asserted her right to end her conversation with the officers and returned to her home."
  • The Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit for these reasons:
    1. While the District Court had found that the mother ran into her house, the 9th Circuit went with the mother's testimony that she "walked into the house after telling the officers that she was going to get her husband."
    2. Even though refusing to answer a question and running into the house are both legal activities, they "may nonetheless signify imminent violence."
    3. The 9th Circuit analyzed each event in isolation, and did not consider the combination of events as a whole.
    4. "judges should be cautious about second-guessing a police officer’s assessment, made on the scene, of the danger presented by a particular situation."

I wanted to do a little more reading on this case to try to sort out some contradictions and gaps of information. And the first thing I couldn't help but notice is that the article by Meyers Nave attorneys does not give the name of the case, nor a case number. No names of any parties involved, other than "a Burbank high school." Googling '"burbank police" bullying "supreme court"' got me there. It's Ryburn v. Huff. PDF of the Supreme Court decision here. PDF of the 9th Circuit decision here - Huff v. City of Burbank.

Here are more facts, based on the 9th Circuit decision:

  • The plaintiffs were George, Maria and Vincent Huff (father, mother and son, respectively). The incident happened on June 1, 2007.
  • The high school was Bellarmine-Jefferson High School - whose website is down as write this, probably due to an overload from those reading about this case. The school principal was Sister Milner.
  • Police officers interviewed Sister Milner and two students and could not confirm the existence of the threatening letter. The police headed to the Huff residence after first asking Sister Milner not to call them to alert them to the impending visit. The police parked out of sight of the house and approached on foot. [No word on whether the two students had cell phones or used them.]
  • In response to the request to move the interview indoors "She said, 'No,' because the Officer Defendants did not have a warrant."
  • The police officer asked about guns in the house.
  • "Maria testified that she responded that she would go get her husband. Maria then turned around and went into the house."
  • The Sergeant testified at District Court that she "ran" into the house. The Sergeant also testified that she did not say she was going to go get her husband. She said nothing.
  • The police acknowledged that they did not have probable cause to enter the home.
  • The last two officers to enter the house had been standing apart, unable to hear the conversation and followed the whole bunch into the house on the assumption that Maria Huff had given consent.
  • Later, Sister Milner sent a letter to school parents saying there was no truth to the rumor about the threatening letter.
  • The police did think it was unusual that Mrs. Huff did not ask the reason for their visit, but it seems that it was not at the point in time that the Supreme Court decision (and Meyers Nave summary) place it. In the 9th Circuit decision it sounds like the police expected Mrs. Huff to ask the reason for their visit on the phone, or as soon as she met them in front of the house.
  • The 9th Circuit drew a line between unusual behavior and "exigent circumstances." Exigent circumstances or probable cause are required for warrantless entry.

The Supreme Court's decision to reverse was unanimous.

The essential fact for an ordinary citizen to take away from this is: don't act squirrelly when the police are interviewing you. And especially don't act squirrelly in multiple ways. Just look 'em in the eye, breathe evenly, answer their questions if you choose to do so. If you don't want to answer their questions, say so clearly and walk away calmly. Yes, you have a right to act squirrelly, but you might end up with four uniforms standing in your living room - or far worse.

| permalink | February 13, 2012 at 02:47 PM

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