La Mesa resident prevails in illegal search case

Written by Greg Moran

7:35 p.m., Dec. 25, 2012

Four years ago, La Mesa police Officer Mike Stanton stepped out of his patrol car and shouted at a man crossing Thorne Street to stop.

That routine bit of police work, and the events that followed in the next few minutes, has turned into something more. Because of a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this month, the outcome of that encounter might end up changing how police officers are trained and go about their work.

A three-judge panel of the court ruled that when police officers are pursuing someone who might be guilty of nothing more than a simple misdemeanor, they cannot barge on to private property in pursuit of the suspect.

Instead, they would have to ask permission to enter the property or get a search warrant — all to avoid violating the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens against illegal searches and seizures by law enforcement.

In this case, when Stanton yelled, “Police!,” the man didn’t stop, according to court records. Nicholas Patrick instead continued to walk slowly across the street, then through a wooden gate into the front yard of Drendolyn Sims’ home.

The gate, part of a 6-foot tall wooden fence that surrounded the property, closed behind Patrick.

The officer then approached the house and without warning kicked in the gate. It flew off of its hinges and struck Sims, who was standing next to it on the other side, inside her yard.

She was knocked unconscious and fell to the ground, court records say, and suffered a shoulder injury that later required surgery. She sued Stanton and the city of La Mesa for $500,000, claiming the officer violated her constitutional rights against unlawful searches by the government.

The case was thrown out in San Diego federal court. But on Dec. 3, the panel of appeals court judges reinstated the case, ruling there was no legal justification for Stanton to enter Sims’ home, and that the officer was not immune from being sued.

The ruling could mean officers pursuing suspects — say possible drunken drivers who pull into their own driveways and enter their homes — may have to get search warrants.

Under the law, police are allowed to go on to private property in the “hot pursuit” of fleeing suspects believed to have committed serious felony crimes such as murder or assault.

But this month’s ruling written by the 9th Circuit’s most well-known liberal, Judge Stephen Reinhardt, said that power does not apply if police are chasing someone guilty of no more than a low-level misdemeanor.

That was the case in the incident in La Mesa. Officers had been called to the neighborhood because of a brawl in the street. But when Stanton and his partner arrived, all was calm, according to the ruling.

Only Patrick and two other men, who also walked away in the opposite direction, were there, said Sims’ lawyer, L. Marcel Stewart, who argued and won the case.
At the most, by not stopping when police called to him, Patrick may have committed the crime of disobeying a lawful order from a police officer. That’s a misdemeanor in California.

The law allows police to enter private property under certain circumstances, such as the potential for the destruction of evidence or that a suspect will flee. It also allows for emergencies, such as immediate danger to the public or police.
In this instance, neither applied, Reinhardt said.

The officer’s lawyer, Peter Ferguson, argued that Stanton did not want Patrick to escape, but the panel said that was not “a serious enough consequence to justify a warrantless entry,” because the arrest would only be for a minor crime.

Stanton also said he feared for his safety, arguing that he was concerned Patrick could enter the home, arm himself and come back out.

That, too, was discounted by the appeals court panel, which said there “was simply no evidence of imminent danger to the officer or anyone else.”

Stewart said the decision draws a bright line on when police can enter private property.

“The officer can’t say, ‘Because he committed a minor crime I’m going to pursue him on to private residential property,’” he said. “It makes the law very clear now.

If you have a misdemeanor, a minor offense, you can’t do it.”

Ron Cottingham, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, a labor group representing more than 60,000 law enforcement officers in California, said if the decision stands, “it would change the face of police work and how we operate.”

Cottingham said such a ruling could put officers in danger if they hesitate to mentally determine if someone they are chasing has committed a misdemeanor or a felony.

Ferguson has asked a larger panel of the court to take up the opinion and review it. Failing that, he said he will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the matter and is being backed up by law enforcement groups that have learned of the decision.

He contended that the opinion misinterprets the law on what police can do when pursuing someone, and conflicts with state law and rulings from other federal appeals courts.

As it stands now, Ferguson said, the opinion hinders the ability of police to chase and capture suspects.

“Officers are taught when you see a crime committed in a public place, you have a right to go get that individual without a search warrant,” he said. “This opinion, if it stands, creates a lot of problems for that aspect of their training.”

Stewart said the court noted there was no evidence when the officers arrived on the street that a crime had taken place or was ongoing. When Patrick was caught later, he possessed no weapons.

If the ruling stands, the case would return to federal court in San Diego and perhaps could go to trial or be settled.