(CN) – Police officers in Burbank, Calif., had no reason to enter a private home, without a warrant or the owners’ permission, amid rumors that the teenager living there had threatened to “shoot up” a local school, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.
The Pasadena-based federal appeals panel partially reversed a lower court’s granting of qualified immunity to four officers who entered the home of George and Maria Huff while responding to a rumor that the Huffs’ son was planning to shoot students at Bellarmine-Jefferson High School.
Four officers showed up at the Huff home in June 2007 to investigate the rumors, but were denied entry. After the officers had called Maria Huff on her cell phone, she and her son, Vincent, talked to the officers in front of the house.
Vincent told the officers that the rumors were untrue, and his mother went back inside to get her husband when the officers asked if there were any weapons in the house. All four officers followed her into the house. They stayed for about 10 minutes, confirmed that the rumors were untrue, and did not conduct a formal search, according to the ruling.
In a partial dissent, Judge Johnnie Rawlinson accused the majority of reciting “a sanitized account of the event.”
“Indeed, the district court found that when asked whether there were guns in the house, rather than responding, Mrs. Huff turned and ran into the house,” Rawlinson wrote (emphasis in original). “Mrs. Huff’s precipitous departure understandably prompted safety concerns.”
The Huffs sued the officers and the city of Burbank for violating their Fourth Amendment rights. The district court held that the officers were immune because there were “exigent circumstances,” including “officer safety concerns” that permitted the officers to enter the home.
The three-judge appellate panel disagreed.
“There were no exigent circumstances,” Judge Algenon Marbley wrote in the court’s majority opinion. “The officer defendants were not pursuing a fleeing felon. The officer defendants were not trying to prevent the destruction of contraband or evidence. No crime had been committed. No crime was in progress.”
Because no emergency existed, the panel found, only two of the officers – those who merely followed the first two who entered the home, not knowing that permission had not been granted – were eligible for qualified immunity.
The officers who initially entered the home – Darin Ryburn and Edmundo Zepeda – did so illegally, Marbley found.
“Both Zepeda and Ryburn knew that no crime was in progress at the Huff home,” he wrote. “Both Zepeda and Ryburn were aware that they did not have probable cause to stop or detain Maria or Vincent. Both Zepeda and Ryburn knew that they had not been given consent to enter the Huff residence. Neither Zepeda nor Ryburn knew a gun to be present at the Huff home, ever saw a gun, or was ever informed of the presence of a gun. A reasonable officer confronted with this situation may have been frustrated by having a parent refuse them entry, but would not have mistaken such a refusal or reluctance to answer questions as exigent circumstances.”