Posted on Jun 23 2009
Police, armed with a search warrant, broke down the door of a Hartford home. They ransacked the apartment, pointed guns at family members and even helped themselves to the occupants’ food. Only one problem: they raided the wrong residence, a fact that even authorities later conceded.
One might think that the occupants would be able to sue for damages after such an unwarranted intrusion, but a recent decision in a Connecticut federal court says otherwise.
After staking out the neighborhood, Hartford police obtained a search warrant in May 2005 from Judge Christine Keller on the suspicion of illegal drug sales on the second floor of a building on Belden Street in Hartford.
Detective Martin Miller and a group of other officers arrived at the door of the second floor apartment. The officers yelled, “Hartford police, search warrant, search warrant, Hartford police.”
After a few seconds, the detectives knocked the door down with a battering ram and entered the apartment with their guns drawn, according to court records.
Rosa Pina and Moses Torres were handcuffed, but their three young children were not. According to the court records, the detectives proceeded to search the apartment, tossing about the occupants’ belongings as they moved through the rooms. The detectives reportedly screamed profanities and threatened to shoot anybody who moved.
The plaintiffs claim that one of the children was in bed sleeping and awoke to the barrel of a gun being pointed in her face.
The plaintiffs further claim that the police officers went into the kitchen and helped themselves to some food. The search lasted for about an hour.
No drugs were found in the apartment. Although police claimed they were seeking a man named Moses, the Moses who resided in that apartment did not fit the description of the Moses named in the search warrant. Moses Torres informed police that another Moses lived upstairs on the third floor.
The plaintiffs claim that police acknowledged that they must have searched the wrong apartment when they left. The family later hired a lawyer, Hartford’s A. Paul Spinella, in hopes of righting a wrong.
“I represent a very hard working decent family – a couple with young children,” said Spinella. “It was a full-scale drug raid and they had the wrong apartment and admitted they had the wrong apartment.
“They trashed the apartment and caused damage to the young kids,” continued Spinella. “There was real psychological harm documented in medical reports.”
So Spinella filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the city of Hartford claiming the family’s Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. Specifically, they alleged unreasonable search and seizure and excessive force.
The City of Hartford, represented by attorney Michael Collins of Halloran & Sage, alleged that both claims were without merit and filed a motion for summary judgment. In late April, District Judge Janet C. Hall granted the city’s motion and dismissed the lawsuit.
Hall reasoned that the issuance of the search warrant was reasonable given that a confidential informant claimed to have purchased drugs on the second floor of the building and police independently saw “drug dependent persons climb the stairs to the second floor and then exit within a few minutes.”
In denying the claim for excessive force, Hall wrote in her opinion that “the fact that the officers had their guns drawn and pointed at the plaintiffs is not unreasonable during the execution of a search warrant.”
Further, Hall said the plaintiffs did not bring forth enough evidence regarding property damage or any case law showing that the threat of force or the use of profanities constitutes excessive force. Hall also said there was no prior case law regarding the consumption of a family’s food during a search warrant.
“We’re distressed we never got a chance to present this to a jury but we’re not giving up the claim,” Spinella told the Law Tribune.
Spinella has filed a motion to Hall to reconsider the case. He said that despite the existence of a valid search warrant, he took on the case because he felt “there were real damages here.”
“You would think we’d still have a claim for misconduct for what took place in the apartment itself,” said Spinella. “Just because an officer has a warrant doesn’t mean you get to run roughshod through the apartment.”
Spinella said the best-case scenario would be for the city to make a settlement offer.
Collins, the lawyer representing the city of Hartford, declined comment for this article, citing that it’s ongoing litigation due to Spinella’s appeal efforts.
By CHRISTIAN NOLAN