Family May Sue U.S. for False Imprisonment
(CN) - The federal government must face a Pennsylvania family's claims U.S. Marshals mistakenly broke down their door and held them at gunpoint, a federal judge ruled.
In a complaint filed in Philadelphia, plaintiffs James and Mildred Hill said it was about 1:45 a.m. on the morning of March 2, 2010, when they finally went to bed after getting their 10-month-old granddaughter Jalayla Webb to sleep.
The Hills' daughters, Nehisha and Jalesa, were also asleep in the Norristown, Pa. home, as was a grandson, Jermond Webb.
About 20 minutes after retiring, James Hill said he heard a loud "boom" coming from downstairs. He said he immediately ran down the stairs and met with four U.S. marshals pointing handguns and rifles at his head and warning him to put his hands up in the air or get shot.
Soon, the other family members woke up, came downstairs, and were also held at gunpoint, Hill said.
Although James said he asked what was going on, the marshals did not identify themselves or their reason for being in the Hills' home, but rather ordered the family to sit in the living room while their home was searched.
About five minutes later, one of the marshals returned and told another, "We have the wrong house. This is not the house[.] [I]t must be next door." The marshals then ordered the family not to move or leave their home and went next door.
Within half an hour, a marshal advised the Hills that the men in their home were U.S. Marshals with a warrant for an individual, and they apologized for breaking down the door and going to the wrong house.
The family brought suit in federal court on Dec. 7, 2012, asserting claims for assault, false imprisonment, battery, and false arrest, but later dropped the latter two claims.
The government moved to dismiss the amended complaint on March 29, but Senior U.S. District Judge Ronald Buckwalter denied the motion last week, holding that the Hills properly alleged an assault claim.
"Paragraph 18 of the amended complaint states that the U.S. Marshals aimed their weapons at all plaintiffs," Buckwalter wrote. "Such an action is clearly intended to cause apprehension of imminent harmful bodily contact."
The judge also tossed aside the claim that the marshals' behavior under the circumstances was "standard law enforcement practice meant to insure [sic] the safety of the law enforcement professionals and innocent bystanders[.]"
"Whether or not the behavior of the police officers was reasonable cannot be determined by the facts alleged in this amended complaint," Buckwalter wrote. "Consequently, it is inappropriate to dismiss the assault claim at this stage of the case."
The Hills' false imprisonment claim also survived.
"The United States argues that there can be no false imprisonment in this case because there was no unlawful confinement," Buckwalter wrote. "The entry into 824 Smith Street was done lawfully, defendant states, because the marshals reasonably believed it was the correct residence. The facts alleged in the amended complaint, however, do not describe reasonable officer conduct. Though discovery could prove otherwise, when taken in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the description of the officers' conduct was unreasonable. Moreover, the marshals ordered all plaintiffs to remain in place after they left the house to search 826 Smith Street. Plaintiffs claim they did not move after receiving this order for fear of their safety. If the officers had no right to confine the Hills upon learning they were in the wrong house, they may have falsely imprisoned the family - regardless of whether or not the Marshals had an initial right to be in the house."