Court Says Police Not Immune to a Suit if they Knowingly Violate Constitution

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Aug. 4, 2011

CONTACT: JOHN GARCIA, 212-739-7513 jgarcia@latinojustice.org


In a case in which local police brutally entered a Latino home with no warrant and no consent, an appellate court decided that officers were not immune from a suit if they knowingly violate the Constitution.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a Latino family’s right to pursue their lawsuit against a police officer who forcibly invaded their Prince William County, VA home.

The court ruled that the Latino couple is protected by the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures in their home.

In 2007, a Prince Williams County police officer went to Juan and Esperanza Guerrero’s house to serve a truancy summons upon a third party relative - who did not live there. After Ms. Guerrero told the officer that the person named in the summons did not reside at the home, she attempted to close the door.

The officer forced his way into the house, provoking a violent altercation involving several other police officers who physically restrained the family in front of their minor children after pepper-spraying Mr. Guerrero when he came to aid his wife. The couple were arrested, but all criminal charges were subsequently dismissed.

“The Latino residents of Prince William County can breathe a little bit easier today,” said Juan Cartagena, President and General Counsel for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, one of the Guerrero’s attorneys, “knowing that the police officers of Prince William County are being held accountable for acts that violate the rights of Latinos.”

The court upheld long standing Fourth Amendment jurisprudence that entry into a home to conduct a search or arrest is unreasonable unless they have a warrant. The court agreed with the plaintiffs-appellees legal position and rejected the defendant police officer’s contention that a mere summons is the functional equivalent of an arrest warrant

The court cited a 2003 opinion by the Virginia Attorney General that concludes that a law enforcement officer lacks such authority and that absent consent of the dwelling owner, must obtain a warrant before entering the home for the purposes of serving a misdemeanor summons.

This case is of special importance because the incident occurred in the midst of Prince William County’s then massive crackdown on undocumented immigrants, and was part of an ongoing effort to target and drive Latinos out of the county, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status.

Incidents against Latinos have been on the rise in Prince William County after the County in July 2007 approved a resolution similar to recent legislative efforts enacted by Arizona, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina directing local police officers to act like immigration officials in violation of federal law. The County subsequently rescinded the ordinance and later passed a modified version. The Court’s vindication of the Guerrero’s right to pursue this claim is an important step in the Latino community’s efforts to push back against these unconstitutional ordinances and the resulting racial profiling and targeting by law enforcement.

LatinoJustice PRLDEF is co-counsel on the lawsuit with Patton Boggs LLP. The suit, which was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia on November 23, 2009, contends that Prince William County Police used excessive force when they entered the Guerrero home, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The lawsuit seeks declaratory judgment and money damages.

The Court’s decision focused on whether the defendant police officer, David L. Moore was entitled to “qualified immunity” which only applies in circumstances where the purported violation of constitutional rights were not clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct. The court in rejecting Officer Moore’s appeal that the District Court erred in denying his motion for partial summary judgment found that the right at issue was clearly established at the time he forcibly entered the Guerrero’s home.

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