Judge Orders Trial for Mistaken Sheriff’s Raid

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – Is it reasonable to think a home “burglar,” after hearing police sirens, would turn on the porch light and walk out the front door with his slippers on – and his teenage “accomplice” would soon follow wearing only his underwear?
     U.S. District Judge Otis Wright said a jury should decide that, and denied most of Los Angeles County’s motion to have a civil rights complaint filed by a federal Immigrations and Custom Enforcement supervisor and his son, the victims of the mistaken police raid on their homes in 2013, dismissed.
     Plaintiffs Raymond Kovacic and his son Jared had friends over at their home in Westlake Village in the early morning hours of July 31, 2013, when police – apparently investigating a suspected break-in at the house – woke them up. When the Kovacics went outside to see what was happening, they were treated as suspects and handcuffed while their home was searched, according to their complaint.
     Raymond Kovacic is the assistant director of the Ventura ICE office and his home has a 7-foot block fence surrounding it. According to Wright’s ruling, officers Jonathan Boden and Christopher Redenbaugh were on patrol in their car when they claim to have heard a loud crash.
     The officers went to investigate and when they approached the front of the Kovacic home, they saw a person inside holding a flashlight who looked like he was robbing the place. They called for backup and soon more police arrived and a helicopter was overhead.
     All the noise startled Raymond Kovacic, so he put on shorts and slippers, grabbed his wallet and ID and went outside to see what was going on. He turned on his porch lights and opened his door to officers with their weapons drawn, ordering him on his knees. He was handcuffed and taken to a patrol car while we tried to show them his wallet and tell them he owned the house.
     Jared, then 17, opened the door, wearing only his underwear and a T-shirt, to see what was going on and he was detained. Jared says one officer was pointing a gun at his head from “not even a foot away,” while half a dozen others had their guns trained on him.
     “We got you Fred,” the officers allegedly told Jared while he cuffed him. When Jared told them he was not Fred, one replied, “Well, if you’re not Fred, then where’s your sister?”
     Three guests were then handcuffed and then the residents were told a dog would be sent in to get the other guest, who police were told was a heavy sleeper, if he did not come out himself. The officers finally went into the home and conducted a sweep before finally realizing that their mistake.
     According to Wright’s ruling, what was said and done during the exchange are in dispute. After being released, a sergeant allegedly told Raymond Kovacic that they were only responding to a security alarm. When Kovacic told him he didn’t have one, the sergeant changed his story and said they’d heard a loud crash.
     Deputy Redenbaugh claimed that one of the house guests told him that he had accidentally slammed a sliding glass door and had been using his cellphone to pack his bags to leave without waking the other guests.
     Raymond Kovacic said the sergeant told him, “Look, these are two of my best guys. They’re a little zealous, but they’re really good. I’d hate to see anything happen to them.” When Raymond asked for copy of the incident report the sergeant supposedly said, “Oh well, that’s easy. I’ll tell you right now there won’t be one.”
     Raymond then said he reminded the sergeant that, with all the officers, his child on the ground, and a helicopter flying overhead, that there should be an incident report. The sergeant responded by saying, “No, there was no incident.”
     No charges were ever filed against either Kovacic and no incident report was ever made.
     The Kovacics sued for violations of Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure and their First Amendment rights to free speech, and a claim against the county for failing to properly train its staff.
     The defendants in the case, Los Angeles County and a number of individually named sheriff’s officers, filed a motion to dismiss arguing what happened was reasonable under the circumstances.
     Wright granted some parts of that motion on March 18, axing the free speech claim and dropping two officers from the action. He also found the Kovacics could not show the sheriff’s department doesn’t train its employees properly and dismissed that claim.
     In denying the motion to dismiss the Fourth Amendment violations, Wright made it clear that he doubted the sheriff department’s version of the story.
     “Even if the court accepts Deputies Boden and Redenbaugh’s claims that they heard a ‘crash’ and then saw through a seven-foot-tall brick wall and into the Kovacic living room, where a burglar-esque figure was holding a flashlight and placing items in a bag – and for the court to accept this tale would give defendants far more benefit of the doubt than their story deserves – additional facts draw into question the existence of reasonable suspicion,” he wrote.
     “It is in dispute that an officer could reasonably believe that a burglar, who after hearing police radios outside, would walk out the front door, clad in slippers and a sweatshirt, and throw on all the lights. To the contrary, any suspected burglar worth his salt would be jumping that seven-foot wall and fleeing out the back. And even if the deputies had reasonable suspicion to detain Raymond, they certainly did not have the requisite level of suspicion to detain his teenage son. Jared emerged from the home just a few minutes after his father; he too was dressed rather un-burglar-like in his boxer shorts and T-shirt. What burglar runs toward the sounds of shouting officers, and does so in his underwear?”
     And the search of the home could not be attributed to officer safety because, by then, it should have already been established that there were no burglars in the home and that the owners of the home had been detained, Wright said.
     He also allowed the charge of unreasonable use of force move forward.
     “Where officers point their weapons at an outnumbered and an apparently unarmed individual who is under investigation for at most a misdemeanor, and where there are no dangerous or exigent circumstances present, the detention violates the Fourth Amendment,” he wrote. “The fact that defendants may have pointed their service weapons at the head of a minor where there was no indication that the child was armed or even uncooperative raises serious questions about the reasonableness of their actions.”
     Jerry Steering of the Ultimo Law Firm in Irvine represents the Kovacics. He said the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is rotten and full of deputies who will lie for each other and much worse.
     “You’ve got a senior federal law enforcement supervisor who comes out of his with his slippers on and an ID and they point shotguns at his head and his kid’s head. It’s pretty severe – and there is no report – none. That organization, what they need to do is fire everybody and start over,” Steering said.
     The Los Angeles County Public Affairs Office had no comment.

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