EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Eleventh Circuit Finds Captain Who Led No-Knock Raid at Wrong House With Flash Grenades Entitled to Qualified Immunity

The qualified immunity doctrine insulates governmental agents from liability for unconstitutional acts as long “as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”  The primary purpose of the doctrine “is to protect them ‘from undue interference with their duties and from potentially disabling threats of liability.’” So, should there be qualified immunity in a case with these facts?

Officers executed the warrant at 303 English Road in McDonough, Georgia, the home of Onree Norris, but they should have executed it at 305 English Road, the house next door—which was reportedly the home of Gemar Watkins, a known violent drug dealer. Because of the high-risk nature of executing the search warrant on Watkins's home, two teams including over 24 law enforcement officers participated in the execution of the warrant. Officers initially approached 305 English Road but thought it was not the target of the warrant because it was an abandoned, dilapidated, uninhabitable “storage out-building” and officers understood the target to be an occupied, “normal” home. Unfortunately for Norris, the team of officers then mistakenly thought his home, approximately 40 yards away, was the actual target and raided it.

These were the facts in Norris v. Hicks, 2021 WL 1783114 (11th Cir. 2021). Captain David Cody led the no-knock raid. Moreover,

Capt. Cody wore a body camera which recorded video showing the Response Team, dressed in tactical gear and holding weapons, pull up on a dirt path leading to the side of 305 English Road. The footage shows that the house had abandoned cars and parts scattered around the dirt yard. After exiting their vehicles, the agents threw two flash grenades near the house that created a bright flash, followed by smoke and a loud noise....
Immediately after the explosions, a few agents approaching from the front of the house apprehended and handcuffed a man in the yard. The rest of the Response Team, led by Capt. Cody, walked towards the side of the house with their guns raised. Though the state of the house was not apparent from a distance, as they got closer to it, Capt. Cody and Agent Kendig realized it was severely run down and dilapidated. The house had holes on the exterior, car parts laying inside, and it had no windows, doors, electricity, running water, appliances, carpet, or sheet rock walls. Capt. Cody and Agent Kendig believed it was uninhabitable, abandoned, and a “storage out-building” rather than a house. Because Capt. Cody and Agent Kendig understood the search warrant was for an occupied residence, they mistakenly concluded the structure was not 305 English Road.
 
As the group moved through the backyard of 305 English Road, the video shows that Capt. Cody slowed down and the rest of the Response Team continued past him through some trees. While Capt. Cody hung back, a group of Response Team agents deployed two flash grenades and then forcibly entered a nearby yellow house whose lights were on and apprehended Norris, who was inside....
 
Norris's house was approximately forty yards from 305 English Road, separated only by a few trees. The house, like 305 English Road, sat on a large grassy dirt clearing surrounded by trees. The video shows that the color and design of the two houses have some similarities, but Norris's home was yellow while 305 English Road was a slightly lighter off-white color. Capt. Cody testified that sometime during the briefing he had been told the target residence was yellow, but he could not remember who told him this fact.

In finding that Cody was entitled to qualified immunity, the Eleventh Circuit held that

Capt. Cody and the other officers involved carefully planned a high-risk raid at what was thought to be a dangerous target house but made a mistake when faced with an unexpected circumstance-the residence not matching the description given. The team was especially limited in their ability to respond to this unexpected circumstance because they had “announced” their presence with flash grenades, it was unsafe to communicate via radio, and they were forced to make a split second decision. Our precedent allows some latitude for such “honest mistakes...made by officers in the dangerous and difficult process of making arrests and executing search warrants.”...While the mistaken raid of Norris's home was no doubt traumatic, given the significant factual differences between Capt. Cody's actions in the raid and our prior precedent, we agree with the district court that Norris failed to meet his burden to show that Capt. Cody violated clearly established law.

-CM

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2021/05/the-qualified-immunity-doctrine-insulates-governmental-agents-from-liability-for-unconstitutional-acts-as-long-as-their-co-1.html

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