SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – An elderly couple can sue the federal agents they say illegally raided their house and seized $200,000 in cash at gunpoint, a federal judge ruled.
Malaquias and Cayetana Reynoso claim officers with the San Francisco Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives forcefully entered their house on June 18, 2009.
The couple says they were in their 70s at the time of the raid and that the authorities knew they had no criminal record. But the officers held them at gunpoint for five hours while they illegally searched the property, refusing to let them go to the bathroom unattended or take medication, according to the complaint.
As the officers were leaving, Malaquias Reynoso says he noticed $200,000 in cash had disappeared from his bedroom without a receipt. He allegedly confronted an officer, who “responded by pointing his loaded weapon at said plaintiff with the admonition to ‘go back in that house or I’ll blow you [sic] head off.'”
Agent Megan Long, the ATF and the U.S. government moved to dismiss the couple’s third amended complaint, but U.S. District Judge Susan Illston refused Tuesday.
The federal defendants failed to show that the Reynosos’ conversion claim falls within the “detention of goods” exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act.
“A conversion involves wrongful dispensation of property rights, while detention merely involves taking custody of property,” Illston wrote. “Here, plaintiffs allege defendants took $200,000 in cash without reporting it at all; in effect, they [sic] Reynosos are alleging it was stolen by the agents. Defendants never asserted they were taking custody of the property or otherwise detaining it. As pled in the complaint, the cash was removed without notice from the house; when questioned about it by Malaquias, an officer pointed a gun at him and demanded he return to the house. The court finds the detention of goods exception does not apply in these circumstances.”
Illston also disagreed that the Reynosos had failed to state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
“Plaintiffs have alleged that all of the defendants, federal and state, held them at constant gunpoint and denied them unattended access to the bathroom and any access to their medications for over five hours while they searched the house,” the 12-page ruling states. “Defendants knew that plaintiffs, who were in their seventies, had no criminal record. According to the complaint, the search resulted in Malaquias suffering a ‘complete physical and mental collapse, necessitating his being carried off to a hospital.'”
Illston cited some of the same allegations in refusing to dismiss claims of excessive and unreasonable restraint.
The Reynosos have sufficiently alleged a “symbiotic relationship” between the state and federal officials to state a claim against the ATF for liability, according to the court. While the San Francisco Police Department first entered the house, the ATF agents substituted themselves for the San Francisco officers once the house was secure. The federal defendants “significantly participated” in the search in question, and therefore acted under color of state law, according to the ruling.
Illston did dismiss claims of unreasonable force and unlawful seizure of property under the Federal Tort claims Act finding that the federal defendants had immunity.