Officers Enter Without a Warrant, Provoke Punch; Who Gets Sued?

By William Peacock, Esq. on May 22, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If you enjoy reading stories of police misconduct being properly punished, today's Eleventh Circuit selection will warm the cockles of your heart.

A handful of police officers responded to a 911 call from a drunk, lost woman. When they arrived, she claimed that she was in danger and that someone had been beating Jerry Morris's horses. When officers woke Morris up with a knock, he tried to put on his boots to check on his animals. Instead, the officers entered his house and told him that he wasn't going anywhere.

Morris asked the officers to leave, unless they had a warrant. Two of them did, but Office Bradford stood in the doorway, holding the door open. Morris tried to close it, Bradford shoved him, and Morris retaliated with a punch. He was subdued by the three officers, plus two more that arrived as backup, and was then Tasered while handcuffed. There's no word on what happened to the horses, or the girl for that matter.

No Charges, Until They Lied

The opinion notes that the first grand jury issued no bill. After Morris filed notices of claims with the local towns, the three original officers met and agreed to a false version of the story that claimed that Morris gave consent to entry, was intoxicated and aggressive, and that he slammed the door on Bradford and punched him without any provocation.

A second grand jury returned an indictment, but the trial jury deadlocked. A second trial resulted in verdicts of acquittal.

About That Entry

The officers argued that qualified immunity barred Morris's claims. The Eleventh Circuit stifled its laughter, barely. After assuming, without agreeing, that the reasonable suspicion required for a Terry stop would've justified a warrantless entry under the Fourth Amendment, the panel made quick work of officers' argument:

Bradford and Bowers say they had reasonable suspicion to detain Morris, to make a Terry stop. Reasonable suspicion of what? And precisely when did they have it? They do not say. They did not have reasonable suspicion of anything concerning Morris when they approached the front door of his house and knocked, for the woman had said nothing at all indicating that Morris had done anything wrong. So, the officers' reasonable suspicion had to have arisen after Morris opened the door.

And what did the officers see when Morris opened the door? A man who had been sleeping, who had just awakened and had not put on his shoes and was unarmed. When the officers informed him that the woman sitting on the porch had told them that someone was beating his horses, his reaction was to put on his boots and check on his horses. What the officers faced was an unarmed man who had just gotten out of bed and was concerned about the safety of his horses. He was not a man armed and presently dangerous, or a man who "ha[d] engaged in, or is about to engage in, criminal activity," [citation] and thus was not subject to a Terry stop.

In short, the officers entered Morris's house without a warrant or anything remotely approaching reasonable suspicion.

As For the False Arrest

The panel first goes in to the legal justification for throwing the punch -- an assortment of state laws that allow one to resist unlawful force, to stop criminal trespass, etc.

But, this is an affirmative defense to criminal charges, not a bar to lawful arrest based on probable cause. "[T]he fact remains that once Morris punched Bradford, the officers had probable cause, or at the very least arguable probable cause, to believe that Morris had committed an assault."

Got all that? Once he throws a punch, even if the punch is defensible under state law, he can be arrested lawfully -- he'll just (hopefully) escape prosecution.

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