(CN) - San Diego County and a sheriff's detective might be liable for using excessive force and conspiring against a deputy's ex-girlfriend with a "SWAT-like" raid of her home, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.
The federal appeals panel in Pasadena, Calif., revived Michelle Cameron's excessive force and conspiracy claims against San Diego County and Sheriff's Detective Michelle Craig.
Cameron, a yoga instructor, started dating one of her students, Sheriff's Deputy David Buether, in 2004. The two eventually moved in together and had two children.
Their relationship soured in 2008, when Cameron learned that Buether was sleeping with other women, according to the ruling.
After a pair of alleged domestic violence incidents, Buether got a restraining order against Cameron and had her forcibly removed from their home. Cameron moved into a friend's house and, a few days later, used Buether's credit card to buy $9,000 in home furnishings from Overstock.com. She later claimed that she thought she was an authorized user on the card, as she and Buether had intermingled their finances while living together.
When a brief attempt to reconcile failed, Buether filed a criminal complaint alleging that an "unknown suspect" had used his credit card to rack up purchases at Overstock.com.
The detective assigned to investigate was Craig, who had attended the Sheriff's Academy with Buether and worked on his patrol shift for four years. Cameron claims the two were friends, according to the ruling, but Craig and Buether insist their association was purely work-related.
That December, Craig obtained a warrant to search Cameron's home for the items bought on Buether's card.
"At 7:00 a.m. On December 18, 2008 - at a time Craig knew Cameron would have custody of her two young children - Craig and six to ten other San Diego County Sheriff's Deputies executed the search warrant at Cameron's residence," the ruling states.
"The deputies were armed and had their weapons drawn. They were dressed entirely in black, with bulletproof vests and helmets."
Cameron said the deputies pointed their guns at her, grabbed her arms and shoulders, and pushed her down the hall into the living room, where they handcuffed her too tightly.
Craig called Buether to come pick up the kids, and Cameron was arrested for identity theft, grand and petty theft, and fraudulent use of an access card. She was released from jail five days later, and the district attorney declined to prosecute. All charges were voluntarily dismissed.
Cameron sued the county and Craig, claiming they violated her constitutional rights when they illegally searched her house based on an invalid warrant, used excessive force, and arrested her without probable cause.
A federal judge dismissed the claims, and the 9th Circuit agreed that the search warrant and Cameron's arrest were both legal. However, the panel allowed her to pursue claims for excessive force and conspiracy.
"Cameron's suspected crimes were relatively minor and nonviolent, the county defendants had no reason to suspect Cameron or any of her known roommates would pose a threat to officer safety, and Cameron was not resisting arrest," Judge Milan Smith Jr. wrote for the three-judge panel.
"Nevertheless, Craig led six to ten sheriff's deputies into Cameron's residence with guns drawn early in the morning. Those deputies pointed weapons at Cameron, grabbed Cameron by the arms and shoulders, pushed her in the back down a hallway, and then tightly handcuffed her. On this view of the facts, a reasonable jury could find that the deputies used excessive force."
On the conspiracy claim, the court said the force used was "clearly intimidating." It concluded that Cameron is entitled to a trial to prove her claim that the "raid" and "SWAT-like" tactics were used to gain the upper hand for Buether at the couple's custody mediation.
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