(CN) – Reports of a planned shootout between rival gangs at a New Mexico high school gave police officers enough suspicion to search a woman’s house and briefly detain her son, the 10th Circuit ruled.
The Denver-based appellate panel found that the officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they entered Martha Armijo’s Las Cruces, N.M., home and handcuffed and questioned her son. The police were acting on credible evidence that Christopher Armijo Sanchez had called in a bomb threat meant to precede a gang shootout at Oñate High School, the panel ruled, finding that the officers had qualified immunity.
On the morning of the bomb threats, in 2006, two students informed the high school’s principal that they had overheard known gang members planning to “bring guns to school the next day, call in a bomb threat to force the school to evacuate, and open fire on the students or start a gunfight when the students were outside.”
That same morning, a woman called in with a tip that she believed her son, who had recently been kicked out of the school, was planning to call in a bomb threat. A short time later unknown suspects called in two bomb threats to the school.
Police identified Sanchez as the only suspect because records showed he’d recently left the school. They went to the Armijo home, knocked and then entered, finding Sanchez asleep. They handcuffed the teenager and questioned him, but after about 20 minutes investigators determined Sanchez was not involved in the threat and left.
Armijo sued the officers in district court for Fourth Amendment violations. Citing material facts in dispute, the court denied the officers qualified immunity. The 10th Circuit reversed, finding that under “any view of the facts the officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment” and that the impending shootout justified their actions.
“Given the imminence of the threatened attacks, perhaps any delay would risk too much,” Judge Paul Kelly wrote for the panel. “The information the officers had was enough for
a reasonable belief that exigent circumstances justified entry.”
Questioning the officers’ urgency, Armijo argued they did not see the bomb threat as credible because they put the school on lock-down instead of evacuating the students. She claimed that the officers could have determined Sanchez was not involved without entering the home and that they should have checked school records or questioned the informants further.
But the panel refused to “second guess” the officers, who were “between a rock and a hard place,” Kelly wrote.
“They could either lock down the school, and risk leaving students exposed to a bomb, or evacuate the school, possibly sending the staff and students into gunfire as they
exited. The officers made an on-the-ground risk assessment and a split-second judgment call. That the officers could not mitigate both risks simultaneously does not suggest that either was trivial or insubstantial. Both were urgent.”
Kelly added that “The Fourth Amendment does not require officers to use the least restrictive means to investigate a threat. If officers act reasonably, it does not require them to do more.”