Suit Presses Police on Search-Warrant Claims

     WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge advanced claims against the system that lets police point to their “experience” as probable cause for search warrants, when data proves otherwise.
     The case stems from the street arrest of a man named Steven Williams for possession with the intent to distribute of Suboxone pills and a few small bags of heroin.
     Metropolitan police wanted to toss Williams’ home after the arrest, and a judge approved a search warrant signed by officer Jerry Afari for 27 O St. NW.
     Williams did actually not live at this address, however, Jerome Davis did.
     Davis brought a federal complaint last year, saying police had no basis to ransack his place. During the search, officers allegedly shredded Davis’ mattress and Lay-Z Boy, emptied his frozen food into the sink where it spoiled, and seized his computer.
     In his complaint, Davis described himself as a 56-year-old former acquaintance of Williams. Williams gave Davis’ address as his own to police, according to the complaint, but Davis says Williams never spent one night there.
     Davis, who died some time after filing the suit, also questioned the police’s “blind reliance” on the department database and pretrial services in confirming the address.
     He quoted the Officer Afari’s affidavit for the search warrant, which says, “based on his training, experience, and participation in drug investigations, [Afari] knew that ‘individuals who deal in illegal controlled substances’ store in their homes items related to drug transactions, including financial, phone, travel, and sales records; photos of illegal contraband; and cash and proceeds from drug sales.”
     Davis said this was not true since police rarely turn up the evidence they seek in searching the homes of low-level drug offenders.
     The defendants moved to dismiss, but U.S. District Judge James Boasberg shot them down Tuesday, saying qualified immunity does not apply if an omission made in Afari’s affidavit would defeat probable cause.
     “Because Afari’s ‘training and experience’ statement alone created the ‘reasonable basis’ required by Thomas, excising that statement and replacing it with the alleged omission defeats probable cause,” Boasberg wrote. “As such, Count II articulates a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s clearly established warrant requirement, and Afari is not entitled to qualified immunity at this stage.”
     Boasberg said “it would be unreasonable for an officer to rely on a warrant that fails to establish any connection between the place to be searched and the items sought.”
     The court previously cleared the eight John Doe officers who assisted Afari because they “reasonably relied on the judicially approved warrant.”
     Though Davis amended his complaint and specifically named those officers, Boasberg ruled that “this door has already been closed.”
     As for the reasonableness of the search, Boasberg noted longstanding precedent on property damage.
     “A search can violate the Fourth Amendment if the damage inflicted was not reasonably necessary to effective execution of the search,” he wrote, noting that the court had previously ruled that the “search unreasonably exceeded the scope of the warrant.” Qualified immunity will not protect the officers on the matter of property destruction at this stage in litigation.

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