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Civil Rights Violation out of Worcester, Massachusetts Examined by Federal District Court

Civil Rights Violation Case Examined by Massachusetts District Court

Americans value their privacy, and the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees Americans that they have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to their property and homes.  But what happens when this right is violated?  In Johnson v. City of Worcester, Carl Johnson had his privacy violated and sued the police officers responsible.

What happened in Johnson?

Officer Moran worked for the Worcester Police Department and has been employed since 1994.  Moran has been investigating Johnson for over a year after getting a tip from a confidential informant that Johnson was selling cocaine.  Officer Bonczek was also on the case.  One night, Bonczek observed a man enter Johnson’s car, stay in the vehicle for a short period of time, and then exit. He saw the man and Johnson “reach towards each other.”  Based on this, Bonczek determined that he saw a drug transaction, even though he did not see any drugs being distributed.

The officers then followed Johnson’s car and pulled him over at an intersection.  They demanded that he exit his vehicle and ordered him to the ground. The officers started searching him and confiscated his $162 that he had on hand.  None of the officers showed their badges. The officers found two cellphones and determined that he was a drug dealer.  They placed Johnson under arrest, but Johnson denies having his Miranda warnings read to him.

Then, Johnson was subject to humiliating body cavity searches in public.  The officers make Johnson take his pants off and searched his naked body while he was in handcuffs.  Then, Moran took the keys to Johnson’s apartment and told him that they were going to search his home.  Johnson knew that this was a clear violation of his rights, but he did not know what to do in the moment.  The officers drove to Johnson’s apartment and saw Johnson’s son outside.  They patted down his son without reason, and then entered the apartment.  They did not seize evidence or look through things while they were in the apartment, but they did search the premises with flashlights, looking for people who may have been hiding inside.  Johnson denies selling drugs and is traumatized by the incident.

Fourth Amendment Issue

The Founding Fathers held privacy and the home to a very high standard.  The purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to protect an individual’s privacy and to protect them from an unreasonable search and seizure that is done without probable cause.  The Supreme Court has long held that “physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed.” United States v. Delgado.  Only under special and limited circumstances may the police search a home without a warrant.  This includes situations where the arrest happened within the home or near the home, and the officers possess a reasonable belief that they must search the home for safety reasons.

None of these circumstances were present here.  The officers arrested Johnson in a completely different location, well away from this apartment.  They grabbed his keys and drove to Johnson’s home.  This is unacceptable is hard to justify.  The officers tried to argue that they believed that evidence of a crime could be found in the apartment and that the entry into the apartment was necessary to prevent loss of evidence.

What happened?

The key to cases such as this is getting over summary judgment.  Summary judgment is appropriate where the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  In this case, Johnson survived summary judgment concerning the Fourth Amendment claim but did not survive with regard to the False Arrest and Illegal Body Cavity search because there were no factual findings to support them.  However, the officers failed on their motion for summary judgment for qualified immunity.

It will be interesting to see how this case develops, but it would be hard to believe that the officers were justified in the warrantless search of Johnson’s home.

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