Your Rights When Police Raid Your Home by Mistake

Posted September 19, 2011 in Personal & Home Safety by Arthur Buono

Last week the FBI and two San Francisco-area police departments raided the home of a local CBS news reporter and her political consultant husband. The problem is they were looking for a suspect who lived across the street. So what are your rights if a police mistake results in injury to you or damage to your property?

  • Drug task force mistakenly raids wrong home
  • Police can be sued for injury or property damage they mistakenly cause
  • While police have protection in many cases, they can’t get away with everything


Police often Shielded from Lawsuits when Making Mistakes

This couple was lucky. The reporter was surprised the cops hadn’t known that the suspect had sold the house to them three months before. She and her husband were able to persuade the police of the mistake before anything serious happened.

Let’s say instead the police busted down your door, smashed up some china, shot your dog, or fractured your jaw while subduing you on the floor. When they say they’re sorry and leave, is that it?

Jeralyn Merritt

According to constitutional rights attorney Jeralyn Merritt, the answer is no. "People who are injured or have property damaged by wrongful police conduct can sue for damages." The federal Civil Rights Act applies. It provides a remedy for violation of your civil rights. This includes any injuries or property damage you suffer at the hands of police.

It’s not as easy as all that. Says Merritt, "in order to sue law enforcement officials after a raid on the wrong house, the homeowner would have to establish not only that his Fourth Amendment or other constitutional rights were violated, but that reasonable police officers and/or their supervisors would have realized this.

"If the officers did not violate a constitutional right, or even if they did but the right was not clearly established at the time, then they are entitled to immunity. Generally, a right is clearly established if a reasonable officer would know that his conduct was unlawful in the particular situation."

So even if you were injured in a mistaken drug raid, you’re not guaranteed a recovery. A seasoned civil rights attorney would be able to tell if the police’s actions were fair or foul.

A recovery could be substantial however. Merritt points out a Michigan case in which a couple received $215,000 because the police mistakenly entered their home and roughed them up in a drug raid. The police were supposed to raid the house next door.

What happened in Michigan and San Francisco is not so uncommon. In fact the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 for police in Los Angeles in a case strikingly similar to last week’s. Police searched a home with a warrant. The suspects the police wanted had moved out three months previously. Though police didn’t make an ownership inquiry in getting the warrant, this did not violate the occupants’ rights. The court noted that innocent people are subjected to searches every day, with or without warrants. It’s a price we must accept for effective law enforcement.

Art Buono co-authors the blog.

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