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Sixth Circuit Denies Qualified Immunity for Officers in No-Knock Home Entry Case

by Richard Resch

On October 29, 2014, at about 4 a.m., 13 Highland Park, New Jersey, police officers performed a no-knock entry into the Greer family home.

Without knocking or announcing their presence, the officers blasted the door open with a shotgun. All the officers were outfitted with SWAT gear and wore face masks, concealing their identity. The occupants included a couple, their three daughters, and a nephew. The officers ordered all occupants to their knees at gunpoint. The Greers repeatedly asked to see the search warrant, but the officers refused to show it.

The officers were allegedly searching for a “dangerous Russian” named Vitaliy Strugach, who apparently lived at the Greers’ home more than a year prior to the search. Neither Strugach nor any contraband was present at the home.

The Greers filed a complaint with the police. In response, they finally obtained the underlying search warrant, which described their home as the location to be searched for drugs and items connected to drug trafficking as the items to be seized.

The Greers subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging the Highland Park police officers violated their Fourth Amendment rights by either serving an invalid search warrant or by improperly executing a valid warrant. In response, the officers filed a Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c) motion, asserting qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion, and the officers appealed.

The Sixth Circuit began its analysis by setting forth the standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court the Greers must satisfy to demonstrate that the defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity.

That is, the Greers must establish that: (1) the officers, acting under color of state law, violated their constitutional right, and (2) the constitutional right in question was “clearly established” at the time of the alleged violation so that a reasonable officer would have known that the conduct was unlawful. Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730 (2002).

Under the facts alleged, the Court determined that it is plausible that the officers violated the Greers’ Fourth Amendment rights “by conducting the search of their home in an unreasonable manner.” The general rule is that officers executing a search warrant must knock and announce their intent to enter the home and wait a reasonable length of time prior to making entry. United States v. Spikes, 158 F.3d 913 (6th Cir. 1998). The suspected presence of drugs decreases the length of time officers must ordinarily wait before entering a residence; however, it does not justify abandoning the knock-and-announce rule. Furthermore, the execution of a search warrant at night increases the length of time officers should wait prior to making entry.

Viewing the alleged facts in the light most favorable to the Greers, the officers violated the knock-and-announce requirement. Although the officers were searching for drugs, that fact alone did not justify abandoning the knock-and-announce rule. In addition, since the search occurred at night, the officers were required to increase the length of time waiting outside before entering the home.

Consequently, the Court concluded that the Greers sufficiently alleged a violation of their constitutional rights, viz., violation of their Fourth Amendment rights pursuant to the knock-and-announce rule.

With the first prong of the test met, the Court turned its attention to the second prong. According to the Sixth Circuit, “[f]or a right to be clearly established, the contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.” Feathers v. Aey, 319 F.3d 843 (6th Cir. 2003). The Court explained that the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures is clearly established. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). Reasonableness is examined based upon the totality of the circumstances. Ohio v. Robinette, 519 U.S. 33 (1996). For a search to be reasonable, the search warrant must be valid, and the search must be conducted in a reasonable manner. Baranski v. Fifteen Unknown Agents of the BATF, 452 F.3d 433 (6th Cir. 2006).  

The Court determined that the officers executed the search warrant of the Greers’ home in an unreasonable manner. Nothing in the record indicated that exigent circumstances were present, so it was unreasonable for the officers to violate the knock-and-announce rule. Additionally, executing a no-knock entry and search of the Greers’ home in the middle of the night added to the unreasonableness of the officers’ conduct. Finally, the officers’ refusal to show the search warrant to the Greers upon request solidified the determination that the search was carried out in an unreasonable manner.

The Court stated the Greers satisfied the second prong of the test. Thus, they presented sufficient “factual allegations that the officers violated their clearly established Fourth Amendment right to be from unreasonably conducted searches.”

Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of the officers’ Rule 12(c) motion based upon qualified immunity. See: Greer v. City of Highland Park, 884 F.3d 310 (6th Cir. 2018). 

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Greer v. City of Highland Park




 

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