United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division
OPINION AND ORDER
WILLIAM C. LEE, District Judge.
This matter is before the court on a motion for summary judgment filed by the defendants, Officer Tim Pauley, Officer Joel Thomas and the City of Marion, on February 14, 2014. The plaintiff, Anthony Neal ("Neal"), filed his response on March 13, 2014, to which the defendants replied on March 27, 2014.
For the following reasons, the motion will be granted.
Neal has sued the defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, alleging that his rights under the Fourth Amendment were violated due to a warrantless entry into his residence and his arrest, which he alleges was without probable cause.
The defendants assert the following facts in support of their motion. On September 20, 2010, Neal was living in a rented house at 817 South Geneva Street in Marion, Indiana. He lived there with his girlfriend Maricela Guerrero and her four children. During the afternoon of September 10th, Neal and Maricela went to the funeral of a friend. After the visit to the gravesite, Neal went home, changed clothes and went to the gathering of young people who knew the decedent. The gathering was at the home of Neal's former girlfriend who had borne two of Neal's children. Under the circumstances, Maricela did not go to the gathering.
While Neal was at the gathering, Maricela attempted to telephone him several times, but he did not pick up. Finally, Maricela showed up at the gathering to confront Neal for not answering his telephone and an argument followed. Neal did not want to create a scene, so he left the gathering and returned home. He arrived at home at approximately 10 p.m.
Maricela arrived home a short time later. She was upset because she had gotten into a fight with a girl who had been speaking with Neal at the gathering. Maricela had a black eye as the result of the fight. Maricela wanted to go back and finish the fight, but Neal did not want her to do so. A loud argument followed with Maricela yelling at Neal and Neal yelling at Maricela. At one point, Maricela got Neal's keys and the argument continued outside the residence. Neal and Maricela continued to yell at each other in the yard. The children that were home followed the argument into the yard and were yelling as well. Neal succeeded in getting his keys back and the argument went back inside the house. At this time Neal and Maricela were continuing to yell at each other in their bedroom. The children were still hysterical and crying.
At approximately 11:00 p.m. on September 20, 2010, Marion Police Department Officers Tim Pauley and Joel Thomas were dispatched to a reported disturbance in the area of 9th Street and Geneva Street. Upon their arrival in the area, they could detect no sign of a disturbance. Officer Pauley was flagged down by Mrs. Jenny McMahan who identified herself as the caller reporting the disturbance. She reported that she had heard screaming and crying coming from 817 S. Geneva Street. Officer Pauley radioed the location of the disturbance to Officer Thomas.
When the officers arrived at the location, they made contact with Christina Morgan who had arrived a few seconds after the officers. As the two officers and Morgan approached the residence, Thomas advised Morgan that they were there to investigate a reported disturbance and that she should stay back until they made sure that the area was safe. Morgan replied that this was her sister's residence and that she could talk to her sister to insure her cooperation. Thomas again advised her that she should stay back. As the officers approached the residence, both could hear yelling and screaming coming from the residence.
When Morgan reached the residence she opened the door. The officers could hear the screaming and yelling more clearly as well as the frantic or hysterical crying of children. Morgan entered and attempted to shut the door on the police officers. Thomas pushed the door open. The officers observed a kitchen with an ironing board knocked over and some children who were the source of the crying. The yelling and screaming seemed to be coming from behind a closed door. Thomas approached the door, but Morgan attempted to block his access. Thomas put Morgan to the side and knocked on the door announcing their presence. Neal and Maricela were inside the room.
Neal appeared to be sweating and breathing heavily. He was wearing UFC mixed martial arts boxing gloves. Maricela was crying and also sweating and breathing heavily. Her left eye was bruised and swollen. There were abrasions and other signs of redness on her chest and her shoulders and upper arms appeared to have signs of bruising present. The injuries appeared to be fresh. Neal advised the officers that nothing was going on and that they should leave. Neal was requested to step outside the residence to speak with Officer Pauley.
Officer Thomas requested Morgan to leave the room so that he might speak with Maricela. Morgan began to yell and curse, stating that since it was her sister she had a right to be present. Thomas again ordered her from the room, threatening her with arrest should she continue to interfere. As Morgan left the room Maricela began yelling "Get out of my house. Nothing happened. You have no right to be here." Thomas explained that they had reason to believe that a domestic battery had occurred and that they had an obligation to investigate.
Outside the residence, Neal explained to Officer Pauley that he and Maricela had had an argument. Pauley asked if the argument had gotten physical and Neal replied "not really." During their conversation Officer Pauley believed that Neal seemed to be moving toward the door, either in an attempt to communicate with Maricela or to go back into the house. Officer Pauley advised him more than once that he would consider any further attempts to go back into the house to be resisting arrest. Officer Thomas also noticed Neal's attempts to approach the door and heard Officer Pauley's warnings to him. At Neal's next attempt to approach the door Officer Thomas stepped outside to block his way. Officer Pauley advised Neal that he was under arrest for resisting. Neal resisted the officer's attempts to handcuff him. A brief struggle resulted which involved taking Neal to the ground and the use of a taser to achieve Neal's compliance with the officers' orders. Neal was arrested for resisting law enforcement and domestic battery.
As officer Thomas was assisting in the arrest of Neal, he noticed Morgan and Maricela attempting to close the door. He pushed the door open again. Morgan stepped into the doorway, extending her arms and bracing herself against the doorframe. Thomas gave her a final warning about interfering with the investigation and threatened her with arrest for resisting. When Morgan refused to move, Thomas grabbed her wrist and pulled her outside to be handcuffed and arrested her for resisting law enforcement.
While he was in the process of arresting Morgan, Officer Thomas saw Maricela again attempting to close the door. Officer Thomas stuck his foot in the door to prevent her from doing so. By this time Captain Scott and Officer Richards arrived on the scene. Captain Scott took over the task of attempting to interview Maricela.
Neal has a different version of what transpired outside. He states that he was asked to go outside and speak with an officer and he did so. According to Neal, there were three officers present at that time, one inside with Maricela, one standing at the door and one speaking to him. He thought about going back inside but an officer told him not to do so, so he didn't. According to Neal, even though there was already a police officer inside the residence, the officer at the door asked him for permission to go inside but Neal said "No". He also told Morgan not to let the officers inside. At that time the officers got mad, took Neal to the ground, used a stun gun and arrested him.
In support of their motion, the defendants first assert that they are entitled to summary judgment on the Fourth Amendment warrantless entry claim. Warrantless searches of areas entitled to protection under the Fourth Amendment are presumably unreasonable, but police may overcome this presumption by demonstrating that, from the perspective of the police officer at the scene, a reasonable officer would believe that exigent circumstances existed and that there was no time to obtain a warrant. United States v. Huddleston, 493 F.3d 596, 600 (7th Cir. 2010). For example, exigent circumstances exist when officers must "render emergency assistance to an injured [person] or to protect a [person] from imminent injury.'" Kentucky v. King, ___ U.S. ___ 131 S.Ct. 1849, 1856, 179 L.Ed.2d 865 (2011) quoting Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006). The Seventh Circuit has found that exigent circumstances justified a warrantless search where the police reasonably feared for the safety of someone inside the premises. United States v. Richardson, 208 F.3d 626, 629 (7th Cir. 2000). The test is an objective one: "The government must establish that the circumstances as they appeared at the moment of entry would lead a reasonable, experienced law enforcement officer to believe that someone inside the house, apartment, or hotel room required immediate assistance.'" Id., quoting United States v. Arch, 7 F.3d 1300, 1304 (7th Cir. 1993). "However [t]his probable cause requirement must be applied by reference to the circumstances then confronting the officer including the need for a prompt assessment of sometimes ambiguous information concerning potentially serious consequences.'" Tierney v. Davison, 133 F.3d 189, 196-97 (2d. Cir. 1998) quoting 3 Wayne LaFave Search and Seizure, §6.6(a) at 391 (3rd Ed. 1996).
"Evidence of extreme danger in the form of shots fired, screaming or blood is not required for there to be some reason to believe that a safety risk exists." Fletcher v. Town of Clinton, 196 F.3d 41, 49 (1st Cir. 1999). See United States v. Brown, 64 F.3d 1083, 1086 (7th Cir. 1995) ("We do not think that the police must stand outside an apartment despite legitimate concerns about the welfare of the occupant, unless they can hear screams. Doubtless outcries would justify entry, but they are not essential.").
"Courts have recognized the combustible nature of domestic disputes, and have accorded great latitude to an officer's belief that warrantless entry was justified by exigent circumstances when the officer had substantial reason to believe that one of the parties to the dispute was in danger." Tierney v. Davidson, supra, 133 F.3d at 197.
On the spot reasonable judgments by officers about risks and dangers are protected. Deference to those judgments may be particularly warranted in domestic disputes. In those disputes, violence may be lurking and explode with little warning. Domestic violence victims may be intimidated or suffer from a dependence inherent in the abusive relationship. The signs of danger may be masked." Fletcher, supra, 196 F.3d at 50.
In the present case, Officers Thomas and Pauley were dispatched on a call concerning a disturbance. The caller met Officer Pauley, identified herself and related a story of screaming and crying coming from the residence in question. As the officers approached the house, they could hear the yelling and screaming themselves. When Morgan opened the door, the yelling and screaming was more pronounced, and involved a male and female. The officers could also hear children frantically crying. In addition, there was the circumstance that, for some reason, Morgan did not want the officers to investigate. There were clearly grounds for a reasonable, experienced officer to believe that, in the midst of an ongoing domestic dispute of the sort that was apparently taking place, one of the parties might already be injured or, at the very least, in imminent danger of an injury.
The defendants point out that other courts have found warrantless entry into residences under similar circumstances to be proper under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. For example, in Magnison v. Cossarella, 813 Fed. Supp. 1321 (N.D. Ill. 1992), police were called to the site of a domestic disturbance by a neighbor who heard screams and was concerned that an infant was in the house. When police arrived, the neighbor reported the screaming and the police officer could hear it himself. The court found that an unannounced warrantless entry into the house was justified by exigent circumstances.
[The officer] arrived at the... home in response to a call from a neighbor who reported a domestic disturbance in progress. [ The officer] himself heard screams coming from the... home, and was informed at the scene by the neighbor that an infant was involved. There is no question that a reasonable police officer faced with the situation encountered by [this officer] would believe that entry into the home was necessary to protect the safety of others. Indeed, as noted by [the officer] "[ t]his type of situation has the possibility of an explosive and sudden eruption of violence"....
Id. at 1323.
In Leonelli v. City of Kendallville, 2008 WL 3874701 at *9 (N.D. Ind., August 15, 2008), the police officer was dispatched to a domestic disturbance where clothing was burning on the lawn. When he arrived at the scene, the officer saw a fire on the lawn and was advised by a neighbor that there was another domestic fight occurring at the residence. When the officer approached a male subject to make inquiries the subject refused to talk and retreated into the house. This court found that, under the ...