Court overturns decision granting immunity to Sheriff for warrantless intrusion on property
Back in 2007, a mentally ill Grand Traverse County resident was killed by a police sniper after his family had requested police intervention to prevent a potential suicide. The man suffered from depression, had suffered a recent job loss, and was threatening to commit suicide---perhaps by police. His home was surrounded by 60 officers and a safe, stable containment was maintained for about 12 hours.
Eventually, multiple tear gas canisters were fired into the home in two volleys several hours apart. As the unstable man became more agitated, a police sniper reacted to discussion of a possible threat by executing him with a rifle shot to the head. The man's family argued that the force used by police was grossly excessive for the circumstances and that the decedent, Carlson, never posed a threat that warranted the sniper fire.
The District Judge dismissed all claims against the Sheriff and County and the case proceeded to trial against the sniper. A jury found that the sniper was not guilty of gross negligence or deliberate indifference and both parties appealed. This week the Sixth Circuit rejected any claims of error in the trial against the sniper but also ruled that the lower court erred in dismissing claims against the sheriff and the county.
The Court held that the family's arguments based on the disappearance of Carlson's blood-spattered clothing and apparent gaps in dispatch recordings did not warrant relief. It also held, however, that the Sheriff clearly misunderstood his duty under the Fourth Amendment and that he was obligated to seek a warrant before "invading" Carlson's property, once the situation had been safely stabilized. Given that Carlson was safely "contained" for almost 12 hours before the Sheriff ordered the first tear gas barrage into his home, and given that Carlson had not posed any genuine threat to officers during that period, it was the Sheriff's duty to seek the independent judgment of a magistrate before ordering the forced entry into Carlson's home.