Tuesday, January 20, 2015
C.A. Revives Suit Over SWAT Raid on Halloween Party at Mansion
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal Friday revived a civil rights suit by the owner of a Santa Ana hilltop mansion and a dozen guests at his 2007 Halloween party that was raided by a Sheriff’s Department SWAT team.
Div. Three said the plaintiffs, including custom limousine builder and party host Carl Vini Bergman, presented sufficient evidence to have a jury decide their claim that Orange County sheriff’s investigator Michelle Hill violated their civil rights through prolonged detention after executing a search warrant.
Hill, citing Bergman’s felony arson conviction and alleged involvement with violent motorcycle gangs, as well as information she obtained about plans for the party, obtained the warrant in order to look for evidence of illegal gambling. The officers seized two slot machines that Bergman said were inoperable, although he later pled no contest to misdemeanor charges of illegally possessing gaming equipment.
The complaint in the Orange Superior Court action named defendants from several local police agencies, including the Orange and Huntington Beach police, as well as the Sheriff’s Department, but all defendants except Hill settled or were dismissed before trial.
According to testimony at trial, SWAT entered the home about 5 a.m. and finished searching by 7 a.m. The plaintiffs testified that they were detained until between 4:30 and 9 p.m.
Judge Gail Andler granted Hill a directed verdict on all causes of action, but the appellate panel said there was sufficient evidence to have a jury decide whether Hill went too far in holding the partygoers for questioning after the other officers had finished searching.
The trial judge concluded that there were three alternative bases for the directed verdict—that the questioning was permissible as an extension of a lawful search; that Hill was entitled to qualified immunity because if there was a constitutional prohibition against such questioning, it was not “clearly established” at the time of the raid; and that the seizure of the slot machines, as well as a small quantity of marijuana found in the handbag of one of the guests, provided an independent ground for the detention of all of the plaintiffs.
But Justice Richard Aronson, writing for the Court of Appeal, said none of the three grounds hold up.
Case law governing search warrants, the justice said, allows the police to detain anyone on the premises during the search, but not afterwards.
The Supreme Court, he noted, held in Muehler v. Mena (2005) 544 U.S. 93, that an occupant’s “lawful seizure” during a warrant-backed search “can become unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete that mission.” It was thus clearly established at the time of the raid, Aronson said, that the Constitution did not permit an officer, on the basis of a search warrant, to question occupants of the premises for hours after the search was completed.
The size and layout of the house, he added, did not make the case distinguishable from those cited by the plaintiffs.
The justice went on to reject the argument that the defendant had an independent basis for the detentions under Terry v. Ohio (1968) 392 U.S. 1.
While an officer may make a brief, investigatory stop when she has an articulable suspicion that crime is afoot, the police may not stop and question “every person present where an officer believes a crime may have occurred,” but may only question those individuals who are reasonable suspected of being involved, the jurist explained. And where a Terry stop is permitted, Aronson added, it must be “brief” and “limited,” not prolonged and broad as the detention was in this case.
In an unpublished portion of the opinion, Aronson said the trial judge was correct in ruling for the defendant on the remaining causes of action, which involved conduct by other officers for which the plaintiffs argued Hill should be held responsible.
Besides Bergman, the plaintiffs were Le Roy Guillory, Jennifer Bell, Carl Bergman, Lorraine Colarossi, Carmine Colarossi, Altan Aksu, David Ryder, John D’Agostino, Kathleen D’Agostino, Scott Deere Sr., Robert Green and Darren Johnson.
The case is Guillory v. Hill, 15 S.O.S. 334.
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