ATLANTA (CN) — Attorneys for Atlanta asked an 11th Circuit panel Tuesday to overturn a federal judge’s finding that the city violated the Fourth Amendment rights of a former sheriff’s deputy when police and city inspectors searched his private motorcycle clubhouse without a warrant.
In February 2014, nine Atlanta officials – including six police officers and three business license compliance inspectors – entered a building rented by Devon Brown as a clubhouse for the Dirty South Slab Riders motorcycle club.
According to court records, the officers mistakenly believed the club was a commercial property open for business.
The officers did not have a warrant to search the club or arrest anyone on the premises.
After observing alcohol being consumed inside the club, the officers arrested Brown, the club president, for failure to obtain a business license and failure to comply with liquor licensing provisions.
The Fulton County Superior Court later cleared Brown of the charges, finding the club was not a business as defined by city ordinances.
Brown claimed he was fired from his job with the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department due to his arrest. He filed a federal lawsuit alleging an unlawful search and seizure.
In January 2018, U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell, Jr. ruled that the city’s officers did not have the right to enter the club and found that their warrantless entry did not qualify as a “lawful administrative inspection to check for compliance with the city’s business and alcohol license provisions.”
Pannell found that there were no pressing circumstances which would have given the officers probable cause to enter the club without a warrant, ruling the entry “was unlawful from the start.”
The judge also said evidence shows the city has a “policy or custom of conducting unlawful, warrantless searches of commercial properties,” and ruled the arresting officers are not entitled to immunity from Brown’s claims.
On Tuesday, attorneys for the city of Atlanta urged a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit to overturn the district court’s ruling, arguing the officers did not know they were violating any laws when they entered the club.
“Brown did not show that the officers violated a clearly established right. The officers did not have any forewarning that they were violating a clearly established right – to the contrary, they thought they were in the right,” city attorney Valorri Jones argued.
“You think there’s no law preventing officers from entering establishments without a warrant?” U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan asked.
“It was not sufficiently clear based on city ordinances,” Jones responded.
“You’re telling me under the Fourth Amendment, if police officers come upon a commercial establishment playing music outside business hours with the door closed, they can go in without a warrant?” Jordan asked.
“Yes, or whatever issue they feel there is to deal with,” Jones replied.
“Your argument is they had an implied invitation to go in there? Anyone making a racket at 4 a.m. is an implied invitation to enter?” U.S. Circuit Judge Gerald Tjoflat asked.
“Yes, in a commercially zoned area,” Jones said.
But attorney James Radford of Radford & Keebaugh, representing Brown, argued his client never entered into any sort of agreement with the city which would have allowed them to inspect his property.
“[Brown] never entered into a regulatory relationship with the city. He wasn’t serving alcohol” to the public, Radford argued. “City policy runs in a 180-degree direction from clearly established law. Under the Fourth Amendment, the owner of a property, even a commercial property, is not subject to warrantless search except under certain exceptions like the administrative exception.”
But Senior U.S. Circuit Judge R. Lanier Anderson pushed back against Radford’s arguments.
“As officers approached, they saw cars in the parking lot at 4 a.m. They knew it was a commercial zone where lots of alcohol-serving establishments are. Loud noises were heard inside. It seems to me that it reasonably appeared to officers that a nightclub was operating. It sounded like the business was open and the door was unlocked. There was nothing to suggest they couldn’t enter. Why would the officers reasonably think the exception did not apply?” Anderson asked.
Radford again insisted the officers’ entry was unlawful, prompting Anderson to ask him whether police should have just “walked away” from a potential violation.
“They could’ve gone and gotten a warrant,” Radford responded.
The panel did not indicate when they will issue a decision in the case.