Police don’t have to pay for new doors after a mistaken address entry
On the blogs and boards of the internet, I have often seen people assume that police will pay for new doors when they are needed after a wrong address raid by the police. I have also heard, at least anecdotally, that police sometimes do actually pay for new doors in these situations. However, the legal question is: are the police legally required to pay for the doors? As the following case illustrates, as a Constitutional matter, the answer is “no,” police do not have to pay for new doors as long as they hit the wrong address through carelessness, rather than purposely hitting the wrong house under the influence of ill-will.
Case: DETTLE v. Richfield City, Dist. Court, D. Utah 2014
What happened: The facts are surprisingly simple. A policeman directed that a raid be conducted at a wrong address, under facts where it is reasonably clear that the raid would have been proper at the correct address, and where the policeman who got the address wrong simply made an inadvertent mistake, and was not motivated by ill-will against those at the wrong house. During the wrong house raid, doors were smashed, the occupants were quite frightened and one of the occupants cut his hand in getting to the floor upon command. The police were quick to realize their mistake, and quick to get out of the house. However, the police refused to pay for the smashed doors, so the occupants of the wrong address house sued under federal law and under Utah law to try to make the police pay for the doors, and other damages.
Decision: Under federal law (specifically 28 U.S.C. section 1983), the police win and there is no requirement for the police to pay for the doors. Under Utah law, the police win and there is no requirement for the police to pay for the doors. Plaintiffs come away empty handed.
It is undisputed that is was unfortunate that the mistake occurred. As in Rogers, the court is sympathetic to the Dettles [that is, te plaintiffs] for what must have been an intensely frightening event in the safety of their own home. However, the qualified immunity doctrine balances the constitutional violation and an officer’s ability to effectively perform his or her work. The Garrison court held that there was no constitutional violation in the case of an honest mistake. In addition, “qualified immunity leaves `ample room for mistaken judgments,” and protects `all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.'” Harman, 446 F.3d at 1077.
It is undisputed that none of the officers knowingly violated the law. Moreover, this is not a situation where the officers tried to take advantage of their mistake or delayed in admitting the mistake. They immediately holstered their weapons, most left the residence within less than two minutes, and one stayed an extra two minutes to explain the situation and apologize. The officers were quick to leave and get to the real emergency. Given the court’s analysis of the factual situation, it cannot conclude that the officers were plainly incompetent. Accordingly, the court concludes that the officers are entitled to qualified immunity on the Dettles’ Section 1983 claims.
Comment: It is nice that the court expresses empathy for plaintiffs’ fear. It would have been better if the court had chosen to further empathize with the plaintiffs’ financial losses. It would have been even better if the court had found “plainly incompetent” actions by the police in this case — I personally think that the mistake in the address was “plainly incompetent.” I wonder if the Dettles are sufficiently dissatisfied to try to get this thing reversed on appeal (although that is probably a “long shot”).