CHICAGO (CN) – Police cannot claim immunity after sending a SWAT team to search an elderly mother’s home when evidence suggested she had nothing to do with threats made against them, the Seventh Circuit ruled.
On June 21, 2012, the Evansville, Ind., police conducted a search of Louise Milan’s home, one day after they found out that someone had been posting threats against police online using the home’s IP address.
However, 68-year-old Milan’s wireless Internet network was unprotected by any password, meaning that anyone could have made the threats via the network just by standing in the vicinity of the house.
Two doors down from Milan’s home, police had recently spotted a man named Derrick Murray, who had a history of making threats against the police, and at least two officers believed he was the likely source of the threats, according to court documents.
“Prudence counseled delaying the search of a day or so to try to get a better understanding both of the Milan household and of Murray’s potential responsibility for the threats,” U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Posner said, writing for the three-judge panel. “Prudence went by the board.”
Instead, the police sent an 11-man SWAT team to the house, broke down the door, and threw two “flash bang” grenades through an open window. They then rushed into the house, searched it from top to bottom, and handcuffed Milan and her 18-year-old daughter.
A brief interrogation of the mother and daughter quickly convinced the police that they had nothing to do with the threats made via their internet network, and they were released back to their home with a burnt rug, and broken door. The city paid to replace both the rug and door.
“That the threats might have come from a person (or persons) inside the Milan home who might moreover be armed and dangerous was enough to make the police decide to have the house searched by the department’s SWAT team forthwith, though, to repeat, the threatening messages could instead have emanated from outside the house because of the open network,” Posner said. (Emphasis in original.)
The next day, the police confirmed that Murray was indeed responsible, and asked him politely to present himself at police headquarters.
“The police department’s kid-gloves treatment of Murray is in startling contrast to their flash-bang assault on Mrs. Milan’s home,” Posner said.
Posner noted that Milan’s daughter looked much younger than 18 on the video of the search.
“She is so small, frail, utterly harmless looking, and completely unresisting that the sight of her being led away in handcuffs is disturbing. All that the SWAT officer had to do was take her by the hand and lead her out of the house, which was rapidly filling with smoke from the flash bangs; there was no conceivable reason to handcuff her,” the judge said.
The fact that the entire SWAT team was white, while Milan and her daughter are black, “cannot have helped race relations in Evansville,” the opinion added.
Posner said that the court’s decision in this case was not merely relying on the wisdom of hindsight.
“We cannot understand the failure of the police, before flash banging the house, to conduct a more extensive investigation of the actual suspects: Murray, living two doors away from the Milan home and thus with ready access to Mrs. Milan’s open network. The police neglect of Murray is almost incomprehensible,” Posner said.
The court noted that it has previously objected to the use of flash bang grenades unless there is a dangerous suspect, and police have checked to see if innocents are in the vicinity before using them. In a 2010 case, Estate of Escobedo v. Bender, it called the devices “bombs.”
“The police in this case flunked the test just quoted. True, they’d brought a fire extinguisher with them – but, as if in tribute to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, they left it in their armored SWAT vehicle,” Posner said.
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