911 pocket dial case
What happened: The facts are not entirely clear. It looks like a visitor to a home accidentally pocket dialed 911, the emergency line, and, the call stayed connected to 911 for a relatively long time. When police arrived at the home, the teenage son, who lived at the home and was entertaining the visitor, briefly spoke with police officers through a window. The police officers instructed the teenage son to go to the front door. When the teenage son did not get to the front door quickly enough, the police officers kicked in the front door, allegedly hitting the teenage son in the face with the door (but not very hard). The police officers demanded documentary identification from the teenage son, but the only form of identification he had was a hunting / fishing license. The police officers allegedly threw the teenage son around his living room, front porch and against the police car before handcuffing him and putting him in a police car. Police also handcuffed the visitor and put him in a police car. The police went back in the house and encountered the mother of the teenage son, who was finally awoken from her slumber. Upon this encounter, police quickly left the house and released the teenage son, who was crying and allegedly had visible wounds on his arms from the handcuffs. The family took the son to a medical facility to be checked out. He had no serious injuries. Allegedly, while the family was gone, the police searched the house (including emptying a dresser and opening some containers that had been taped shut). Police deny this search.
Decision: Senior District Judge Norman A. Mordue decided there will be no liability for the police. No finding was made as to whether police had probable cause to forcibly enter the home because the opinion conflates the emergency exception with the exigent circumstances exception, and assumes that no probable cause is required under the emergency exception.
- I don’t think it is correct to conflate the emergency exception (which is generally for medical emergencies) with the exigent circumstances exception (which is generally for stopping crimes and/or catching criminals). I think that probable cause is, or at least should be, required for police to enter a house under the exigent circumstances exception. I understand that some older precedent, including a couple cases cited in the opinion, seem to indicate otherwise.
- At the very least, the court should have reserved the issue of whether kicking in the door was “reasonable” (within the meaning of 4A) for a jury. While Kentucky v. King is not clear as to whether probable cause is required when police forcibly enter a residence under the exigent circumstances exception, it is clear that “reasonableness” is indeed required. In the case of a 911 pocket dial, it seems arguable that it is not “reasonable” to forcibly enter after talking to a resident through a window (especially when the resident was coming to the front door). Even if it ultimately is “reasonable” for police to enter despite assurances that nothing is amiss, I think that should be the jury’s call and not the judge’s call.
- Most egregiously, and perhaps most reversibly, the Judge Mordue impermissibly drew factual conclusions in favor of the police, instead of in favor of the plaintiffs (that is, the non-moving parties). One such conclusion was that the teenage son was not thrown around by the police. Another fact conclusion effectively drawn by the sj decision was that police did not empty the dresser or break into the taped containers. Judge Mordue may be actually correct in his factual conclusions, but it was not his place to decide these disputed fact issues on an sj motion by the police.
- The tone of the opinion, especially the obvious contempt for the teenage son and the son’s visitor, is, in my opinion, indicative of something other than an appropriate judicial mindset.