SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The Ninth Circuit ruled Tuesday that San Diego police officers must face the civil rights claims that they violently arrested a family and conducted a warrantless search of their house during a 7-year-old girl's birthday party.
The officers appealed a federal judge's decision that they were not entitled to immunity because they violated the rights of the family members who brought the lawsuit.
During the pretrial phase, the SDPD and its officers argued they were entitled to qualified immunity, which shields state and federal officials from liability unless their conduct violates an individual's constitutional rights. The judge agreed as to the department but denied the officers' request.
But a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit agreed with the trial court, finding the officers acted "wholly unreasonably" and "violated clearly established law" in handling the Sialoi family, and are therefore not entitled to qualified immunity.
The dispute stems from an incident on October 2, 2010, when San Diego Police dispatch received a call describing two black males with weapons who were "ducking down around the apartment complex, as if waiting for someone," according to the opinion.
Approximately six officers arrived on the scene about four minutes later, all armed with assault rifles. Eventually, some 20 members from the SDPD would arrive at the scene.
Meanwhile, Sialoi Sialoi Jr. and his wife September were throwing a birthday party for their 7-year-old daughter. No alcohol was served at the party, according to the family.
The family says that soon after the police arrived they ordered three teenage members of the party onto the ground, and violently handcuffed all three using excessive force. One of the teenagers had been playing with a paintball gun, but explained to the officers it was merely a toy and an SDPD officer confirmed that.
The police's helicopter pilot then informed officers of the barbecue nearby, and several officers rushed over. They began violently handcuffing several members of the party, including two adult women and a 13-year-old girl, the family says.
Officers walked nearly every member of the party to the middle of the parking lot and conducted pat-down searches, according to the plaintiffs. They pushed a pregnant woman to the ground, placed Sialoi Sialoi into the back of a squad car because he didn't raise his hands fast enough and instead pleaded with the officers to stop pointing guns at the children.
One of the party attendees, Edward Sialoi, asked officers to take care in placing handcuffs on him because he had a medical condition. Instead, they yanked his arm behind him, tearing his rotator cuff, labrum and biceps tendon, according to the family.
As the family members were held in the parking lot, Sialoi Sialoi said the officers searched his house without a warrant or consent. After no weapons were found, officers began removing the handcuffs and left the apartment.
They did not continue to search for the two armed males, even after the original caller told officers they had detained the wrong people. They also did not file a report regarding the incident.
The family contends they were detained for 30 to 40 minutes, while the police claim it was about 17 minutes.
The Sialois sued the city of San Diego and 23 individuals, who filed for summary judgment claiming they did not violate the rights of the plaintiffs and that they were entitled to qualified immunity.
Writing for the Ninth Circuit's three-judge panel, Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt said that — without deciding the merits of the Sialois' claims — the officers were not entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.
"Taking the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, once the officers discovered that the item in G.S.'s hand was a mere toy, the officers violated clearly established law and acted wholly unreasonably in using extreme force to disrupt a peaceful birthday party for a 7-year-old girl, and in searching the Sialoi apartment without a warrant or consent," Reinhardt wrote.
The Ninth Circuit's ruling allows the case to proceed to trial, nearly six years after the initial incident.
"We're very pleased with the Court of Appeals ruling," said Michael Marrinan, attorney for the plaintiffs. "It confirms that the constitutional rights of this family were violated on several different levels. We are looking forward to getting the case to trial."
A phone call to San Diego's director of communications seeking comment was not returned as of press time.
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