TUCSON (CN) — A federal jury awarded a Tucson couple $1.25 million after police searched their home and held them at gunpoint while responding to a 911 call from a neighbor who was known for making false reports.
Jill and Rob Larson were pulled out of sleep around 9:30 p.m. on May 23, 2013 by the sound of a Pima County Sheriff's officer banging on their door. Five armed deputies had surrounded their home, and the one at the door with an AR-15 was yelling for them come out with their hands up.
Barefoot and dressed only in underwear, the Larsons were handcuffed and held face forward against a patrol cruiser for about 45 minutes while officers searched their home. While an officer was questioning the couple, Rob Larson says he saw their neighbor, nonparty William Warfe Jr., walk into the road.
The Larsons said Warfe had called 911 that night and reported screaming and possible gunshots coming from the Larson home. The Larsons say that after deputies questioned Warfe about the apparent lack of an incident, he pointed off toward the property immediately to the south and said it might have happened there.
So the deputies moved on to the next house, occupied by Eva Jackson, her daughter Amber, and Amber's fiancé, Aaron Cole. Deputies handcuffed and held them at gunpoint while searching their home, but never found the crime that had been reported.
According to nearly identical civil rights lawsuits filed by the Larsons and Jacksons in 2014 against Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos and several deputies, Warfe was well-known for making false 911 calls and causing problems at a nearby trailer park.
The original complaint was against then-Sheriff Clarence Dupnik and others. Sheriff Nanos was the only remaining defendant when the case went to trial in Tucson Federal Court last week.
Warfe had made "numerous false reports to the department via the 911 line, and also acted so disturbed that the residents and manager of the facility were afraid of him," the Larsons said in their complaint. "As a result of Warfe's calls and other issues surrounding his conduct, Pima County deputies were repeatedly called to the park."
Earlier that month, a deputy had responded to a 911 call from Warfe in which he accused neighbors of "pointing a laser at him," according to the Larsons' complaint. The deputy found two neighbors using a small laser to play with their dog. Later that night, deputies were called back to the park and Warfe said he "heard voices in his head" and was taking "multiple psyche meds." He agreed to be transported to the Pima County Response Center, the complaint states.
Then a few nights before the incident at the Larsons' home, the manager of the park told deputies that Warfe was "terrorizing the trailer park," that he was "mentally unbalanced," and that he should be removed, according to the Larsons' lawsuit.
At some point between May 21, 2013 and the night of May 23, 2013, Warfe moved to a trailer on property across from the Larsons.
The Larsons claimed the deputies should have checked the validity of Warfe's call before arresting them and searching their home without a warrant.
"At least three of the deputies had had previous contact with Warfe only days before May 23rd, knew or were on notice that he was mentally unbalanced and had made false 911 reports, yet none of them accessed their databases to determine if the caller was in fact a reliable informant," the complaint stated.
After a five-day trial that ended April 22, the jury awarded Jill Larson $750,000 and Rob Larson $500,000 in damages for unconstitutional search and seizure.
"We are gratified that the jury understood the life-changing event this was," said the Larsons' attorney, Michael Garth Moore. "It changed two lives, not for the better and certainly for Jill this will go on for the rest of her life."
Moore said in an interview Tuesday that Rob Larson's first thought when he opened the door that night was, "I'm going to die."
"As Rob testified, when he came out of the door, the first thing that he saw 15 feet in front of him was an assault rifle aimed at his face and head, and the rifle was shaking in the deputy's hands," Moore said.
"When that kind of thing happens, it's a life-changing event. And the jury understood the consequences of that for someone."
Moore said that if the deputies had followed practices recommended by the Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training Board, they would have "confirmed the existence of an emergency with their eyes and ears before they actually undertook a full-scale assault on the home."
The Pima County Sheriff's Department referred questions to the Pima County Attorney's Office.
In an unsuccessful motion for summary judgment filed before trial, the department argued that the "deputies' response was consistent with training that is required by the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board and with good police practices."
"The deputies had reasonable suspicion to detain the Larsons based on the 911 call to the Sheriff's Department," the motion stated. "Deputies may make brief investigatory stops of individuals based on a reasonable suspicion that 'criminal activity is afoot.' Reasonable suspicion is based on probabilities, not hard certainties. A 911 call provides reasonable suspicion for an investigatory stop when the call has 'sufficient 'indicia of reliability.'"
The sheriff's department claimed that the "specificity of the information about guns at the residence and possible shots fired also weighs in favor of the tactics used by the deputies."
"For officer safety, the deputies knocked and announced their presence and had weapons drawn when they approached the home since they had reason to believe someone in the residence was armed with a gun," the motion stated. "That is also why they were pointing their weapons toward the residence when the Larsons came outside."
Moore also represents the Jacksons in their case against Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos, which is in discovery.
"As bad as the Larsons' case was in terms of how the deputies responded, the Jacksons' is even worse," he said. "The injuries to these folks are comparable to those that the Larsons suffered. I believe that the jury has set a standard by which the sheriff has to expect a verdict in the next case if they try it."
The Pima County Attorney's Office said it had not decided whether to appeal the verdict in the Larson case.
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