(CN) – The 5th Circuit reversed portions of a ruling for a Louisiana nightclub that filed suit after 40 deputy sheriffs in S.W.A.T. gear and black ski masks stormed the club with shotguns, assault rifles and pistols drawn. The warrantless raid, dubbed “Operation Retro-Fit” by the sheriffs, was meant to expose drug use, underage drinking and fire-code violations at Club Retro.
“Because of the scale and ferocity of the raid, many of Club Retro’s employees thought that they were being robbed by armed gunmen,” Judge King wrote, describing the scene. “A deputy sheriff hurled himself across the bar into the bartending area and pushed bartender Krista Frost to the ground with a gun pointed to her head. Jonathan Frost, another bartender, was chased, thrown to the ground, and stepped on by a deputy sheriff after Jonathan held up his hands to surrender. The deputy sheriff then pressed a 9-mm pistol against Jonathan’s neck as he searched him.”
King continued: “When masked officers reached the stage, they slammed the performers to the ground or the wall. Matt Mabou, Club Retro’s disc jockey, looked up from his stereo equipment into the barrel of a gun.
“The deputy sheriffs also rounded up Club Retro’s other staff members at gunpoint and searched and detained them. The deputy sheriffs handcuffed some of the staff, and one of the staff members was hit on the head with a rifle butt.”
The defendants searched each patron and employee, and required most to walk by drug-sniffing dogs.
“As part of the search,” King wrote, “some women were instructed to reach under their shirts, lift up their bras, and shake them so the deputy sheriffs could see if any illegal drugs would fall out.”
The deputy sheriffs of Rapides Parish then separated the 18 to 20-year-olds and issued 121 citations for being in a place that serves alcohol, even though patrons over 18 were allowed in the club if they didn’t drink.
The club’s owners said the raid might have been racially motivated, as the owners are Creole and their patrons are mixed-race.
About a year after the incident, the owners and a few staff members sued the sheriff of Rapides Parish and his deputies, claiming they violated a slew of constitutional rights, including free speech, equal protection, due process and the right against unreasonable search and seizure.
The district court rejected the defense of qualified immunity for all but a few claims, and dismissed the plaintiffs’ due process claims without prejudice.
The federal appeals court in New Orleans issued a mixed ruling. It upheld the lower court’s dismissal of the due process claims and denial of qualified immunity on the Fourth Amendment claims.
“No reasonable deputy sheriff in defendants’ positions could believe that the law permitting an official to accept a public invitation to enter a commercial establishment as would a typical citizen justifies a S.W.A.T. team assault by 40 armed officers with weapons drawn and a full search without a warrant that is supported by probable cause,” King wrote.
However, the court extended immunity on the First and 14th Amendment claims.