(CN) - Several police officers cannot get immunity for arresting a reverend, his wife and the couple's houseguest for breaking and entering into their own home, the 6th Circuit ruled.
A neighbor of the Rev. Joseph Barton in Southgate, Mich., called the police to report a possible robbery in 2003.
At the time, Kendra Huckaby was packing items into a white Ford Taurus parked outside the house. She had been staying with Barton and his wife, Faith Pierce, from out of town and was preparing to drive back to her father's home in Kentucky.
After arriving at the property, officers Terry Priest and David Fobar placed Huckaby in the back of their squad car, then entered the pastor's home. Barton and Pierce, who was sporting pajama pants, found the officers and explained that they owned the home and that Huckaby had been their houseguest. As proof, they pointed to photos of themselves hanging on the living room wall.
When the officers demanded identification, Barton went upstairs to look retrieve the couple's IDs and mortgage papers. Pierce claims that, at that point, one of the officers pushed her down a set of steps so he could follow her husband, and that another officer kicked her.
As Priest went upstairs, two more officers, Kramer and Cullen, then entered the home. Fobar told Cullen to keep an eye on Pierce, and then went upstairs to assist Priest. The two officers returned with Barton, who was placed in handcuffs, claiming that the pastor had pulled a gun them.
At the police station, the officers booked Pierce and Huckaby for possible burglary and released them five hours later. The ruling does not state whether there were any charges against Barton, or when the officers released him.
Barton and Pierce sued the police officers for violating their civil rights, and Huckaby made similar claims in a separate lawsuit.
In April 2008, a Michigan federal judge granted summary judgment for the defendants in Huckaby's suit. About five months later, the court granted the defendants partial summary judgment in Barton and Pierce's suit. In February 2009, the court agreed to reconsider the ruling in the couple's suit, finding that the officers were not entitled to immunity from Pierce's Fourth Amendment claim of unlawful arrest.
The 6th Circuit consolidated the two cases for appeal, and ruled against the officers. The Cincinnati-based federal appeals court revived Huckaby's unlawful arrest claim, and affirmed the denial of qualified immunity to the defendants Pierce had sued.
Circuit Judge Damon Keith, writing for the three-judge panel, said the lower court failed to "consider the facts in the light most favorable to Huckaby."
Justification to enter the home hinged on Huckaby's response when the officers approached her at the entrance to the couple's home.
Huckaby said she had indicated that "the Bartons" owned the house, but the officers claimed Huckaby merely told them that "a very sweet man" lived inside.
"Defendants ... analyze the facts as though Huckaby's answers to the officers were incorrect and, moreover, that the events that occurred inside the Barton/Pierce home created probable cause," Keith wrote.
"This analysis completely excludes Pierce's assertion that she immediately told the officers that Huckaby was a houseguest, and fails to account for the corresponding inference that the officers had reason to know Barton and Pierce owned the home," Keith added.