(CN) – Wichita Falls, Texas, and its police chief are not liable for searching a doctor’s home and seizing a box marked “explosives,” among other items, after clinic employees reported finding a gun, ammunition, shells, blasting caps and fuses in his office.
Dr. Allen Zarnow worked at the Clinics of North Texas and was a licensed gun dealer. While Zarnow was on vacation in July 1999, clinic employees found the explosive materials in his office and called police.
The first responding officer deemed the items “dangerous” and contacted his superiors and the Bureau of Alocohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
Police then obtained a warrant to search Zarnow’s home, where they seized weapons, ammunition, money, bonds, books, silver, prescription drugs and a box marked “explosives,” among other things. Though many of the items weren’t in the warrant, police justified their seizure by claiming the items were in “plain view.”
Police Chief Ken Coughlin said he typically seized more than necessary during a search, so that he could later “rule things in or out.”
Zarnow sued Wichita Falls, Coughlin and several officers for allegedly violating his constitutional rights, in part by abusing the “plain view” doctrine.
The defendants were whittled down to the city and Coughlin after the first round of appeals. (Zarnow died during litigation, so his widow, Delores Zarnow, was substituted as the plaintiff.)
A federal judge acknowledged that Coughlin was a “potential policymaker,” but ultimately sided with Wichita Falls, saying the officers’ use of the plain view doctrine was not a city “custom or policy.”
The 5th Circuit in New Orleans affirmed the decision.
Though the city had essentially “delegated its policymaking authority to the chief of police,” Judge Leslie Southwick wrote, there was “no evidence that Coughlin’s failure to supervise the search rose above the level of negligent inaction.”
“Zarnow has not established a custom or policy sufficient to impose liability,” Southwick concluded.