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Court upholds verdict against officer who conducted illegal search

Ronald Ellison sued Denise Balinski, a Detroit police officer, after she orchestrated a wide-ranging search of his home and car.  Balinski became involved with Ellison when she was assigned a complaint of fraud registered by a tenant in a leasehold dispute.  The tenant raised the issue with police when a question arose over the proper identity of the landlord to whom rental payments should be delivered.

The officer found that the title to the subject property had been conveyed to Ellison for one dollar, but then transferred by him to a corporation for $90,000.00.  When she tried to interview Ellison but would not provide an explanation of the nature of her investigation, Ellison refused to cooperate with her.  On this basis the officer sought a warrant for a broad and very invasive search of Ellison's home, computer and vehicle for "any and all computers...and all paperwork" as "evidence of fraud" because she suspected "something was wrong."  Ellison ultimately explained the nature of the title transactions and apparently no criminal action ensued.  He then sued the officer for violation of section 1983 which makes constitutional violations actionable by the victim; he alleged an illegal search and seizure of his computer.

A jury awarded Ellison $100,000.00 for the humiliation, property damage and inconvenience he suffered.  The officer claimed that she was immune from suit because execution of the warrant established probable cause for the search and seizure.  The Sixth Circuit disagreed and pointed out that the officer wasn't even clear with regard to what suspected criminal action she was investigating, let alone in explaining any basis for her suspicion that records of illegal conduct were located in Ellison's home, car or computer.  Her claim that she "could not know what type of fraud she may have been dealing with unless she had evidence" was rejected as "startling;"  the Court noted that the mere suspicion that some vaguely specified crime has occurred does not render the search of a citizen's entire home constitutional.

The Court also rejected the officer's claim that Ellison could not sue for non-economic damages such as embarrassment and humiliation.  The judges noted a longstanding protection of "dignitary" interests through financial compensation, and that the unwarranted and illegal invasion of Ellison's privacy justified awarding damages to protect his dignity.

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