(CN) - A group of Chicago police officers armed with weapons and a warrant violated the Constitution and may face sanctions for barging into the wrong house and threatening to shoot a mother and her kids, a federal judge ruled.
On June 7, 2009, Officer Billy Gonzales applied for a warrant to search the first floor of 3811 West Diversey Ave., based on the tip that it was a Chicago crack house. The application was granted.
The next day, the police executed their search at 3815 West Diversey, the building next door to 3811. The officers approached the building through the alley in the rear and broke down the back door with a sledgehammer. Two officers stayed outside to watch the building entrance.
Startled by the noise, Nancy Simental walked upstairs from her basement apartment with her two children. She claimed to find police pointed their guns at her and saying, "Don't move or I'll shoot you." When she asked the police to put their guns away because children were present, a policeman repeated that he would shoot Simental and another pointed a gun at the children.
Officers also walked in on first-floor resident Francisca Nava as she was in the bathroom and told her not to move. The court said officers also pointed guns at Guadalupe Simental and Cesar Leon.
Sometime after the police entered the building, one of the officers stationed outside informed the team leader that the address on the front door did not match the warrant. All the officers then exited the building, leaving furniture overturned and the residents' belongings strewn across the floor.
The residents of 3815, including three children, sued the officers who executed the warrant, claiming that the police violated their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and excessive force. Both parties moved for summary judgment.
U.S. District Judge William Hibbler granted the residents' motion for summary judgment against all the officers who entered the building, excluding the two officers who remained outside.
"The undisputed facts of this case are relatively straightforward," Hibbler said. "Officers did not obtain a warrant for 3815 West Diversey, plaintiffs' home. Yet, on June 8, 2009, they broke into and searched plaintiffs' home, pointed guns at them, and threatened to shoot at least one of them."
The officers argued that 3815 West Diversey was actually the intended target of the search, but that Gonzales mistakenly wrote 3811 West Diversey on the warrant application.
But the 3815 residents countered that they "strongly dispute this ex post facto
justification for the defendant-officers' unconstitutional actions." Even if this claim was true, they claimed summary judgment was still appropriate since the police did not have a valid warrant. The police cited this argument as an admission that the residents knew their building was the raid's proper target.
Hibbler firmly rejected the police officer's allegations. "Not only did defendants provide the court with innumerable improper and unsupported claims about Gonzales's purported intentions regarding the warrant in question, defendants audaciously claimed that plaintiffs actually admitted that their home was the intended target of the warrant."
"There is no evidence in this case that the warrant contained any errors," he wrote. "Instead, the evidence shows that officers erred by searching the wrong house."
Such a mistake might not be a constitutional violation if the officers made a reasonable effort to ensure they searched the correct building, the court explained.
But Hibbler said "the officers did not even make the effort to look at the prominently displayed address on the front of the house. The fact that they approached the house from the rear does not excuse the mistake."
The court also ordered the officers' attorneys to show cause as to why they should not be sanctioned under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11.