(CN) – The government may be liable after agents mixed up a suspected drug dealer’s license plate with that of a couple with two young daughters, then broke in with guns drawn and terrorized the family.
Early one morning in 2007, Drug Enforcement Administration agents busted into a mobile home in Seeley, Calif., occupied by Thomas and Rosalie Avina and their two daughters, ages 11 and 14.
The agents thought the home belonged to a suspected drug dealer, but later admitted they had miscopied the license plate.
In a federal complaint, the Avinas claim that the agents used a battering ram to come inside and put the whole family in handcuffs while shouting profanities and pointing their guns at the daughters’ heads.
A federal judge in San Diego granted summary judgment to the government on all claims, finding the agents’ behavior had been reasonable. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit agreed that the agents’ treatment of the adults had been justified, but could not say the same for the handling of the children.
The Pasadena-based panel unanimously reversed summary judgment related to the girls’ claims, while affirming the lower court’s ruling as to the parents.
“A jury could find that the agents pointed their guns at the head of an eleven-year-old girl, ‘like they were going to shoot [her],’ while she lay on the floor in handcuffs, and that it was excessive for them to do so,” Judge Harry Pregerson wrote for the court.
“Similarly, a jury could find that the agents’ decision to force the two girls to lie face down on the floor with their hands cuffed behind their backs was unreasonable,” he added. “Under our case law, an issue of material fact exists as to whether the actions of the agents were excessive in light of the ages of B.S.A. (age eleven) and B.F.A. (age fourteen) and the limited threat they posed.” (Parentheses and brackets in original.)