Security & the Law

Was Search & Seizure a Violation?

January 15, 2013
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In a recent Illinois case, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against a municipality and a police officer who responded with other officers to a bank alarm, alleging, among other things, violations of the Fourth Amendment. When the on-duty officers arrived at the bank, the entrance doors were locked, so the officers called a bank employee to come to the bank. The bank employee arrived, unlocked the door, shut the bank alarm off and then began a search. The officers left the main area to continue the search. The bank shared walls with adjacent buildings that contained other businesses and offices. Ultimately the officers came upon the law office of the plaintiffs, attorneys who were in the office with their law clerk. The officers approached the room where the plaintiffs were sitting, pointed their service handguns at them, asked them for identification and told them that the bank alarm was going off and they were looking for bank robbers. 

The plaintiffs then filed the complaint against the municipality and the police officer. The case was removed to federal court, at which time all of the counts were dismissed other than §1983 for violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment to enter judgment in favor of the defendant municipality and police officer. 

The court indicated that it would address details regarding the layout of the building as the plaintiffs argued that these details were relevant to the reasonableness of defendants’ search. The defendants pointed out that on the second floor of the bank the officers found an unlocked door that led to a hallway and that the officers proceeded through the hallway searching offices along the way. The officers then came to a stairway leading down and followed those stairs down to the front door of the attorneys’ office. The defendants argued that the court should grant a motion for summary judgment in their favor because 1) the officers had probable cause to conduct the search and seizure at issue and that 2) the officer was immune from the suit and that 3) the plaintiffs’ superior claim against the city failed as a matter of law. 

The court pointed out that the Fourth Amendment protects an individual’s right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. The issue was whether the officer acted “reasonably under the circumstances” and not whether another or other reasonable interpretation of events could be construed after the fact. The parties did not dispute the essential facts and merely disputed whether the circumstances amounted to probable cause. The court indicated that it agreed with the defendant that an officer could reasonably conclude that a thorough search of the premises would be warranted in response to a bank alarm, even if there had been a history of “false alarms” and that further, the officers may reasonably extend the search to the defendants’ office because there were no locked doors or obstructions from the bank to the law office. Therefore, the court concluded as a matter of law, that the officers had probable cause to conduct the search of the office.

With reference to the qualified immunity of a police officer, the court pointed out that even officials who reasonably but mistakenly conclude that probable cause is present are entitled to immunity. The issue of qualified immunity is a question of law to be determined by the court following a two-part objective inquiry; 1) whether the plaintiff asserted a violation of a federal constitutional right, and 2) whether the constitutional standards implicated were clearly established at the time in question. The fact that the officer had his finger on the trigger of the gun while aiming his gun at plaintiffs did not violate a federal constitutional right. The court determined that the officer had probable cause to search the law office.

With reference to the liability of the city, the court pointed out that based on the evidence submitted to the court, that no reasonable facts could conclude that the city had a custom, policy or practice in place that led to any violation of plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. Therefore, the motion for summary judgment was granted. 




Readers Ask

Q: I have installed a fire alarm system in compliance with NFPA standards. There was a fire and my subscriber claims we were negligent, even though the system had been installed in accordance with NFPA standards. Is compliance with NFPA standards a defense to a complaint for negligence? 


A: This is a difficult question to answer, but I would say that the answer is dependent upon the specific facts or circumstances. If the system is installed in compliance with NFPA standards and if the court finds that there is negligence, then, of course, the provisions in your contract protecting you against acts of negligence would normally apply and would be a defense to such action. On the other hand, if there was proof of gross negligence, then the fact that the system was installed in accordance with NFPA standards may not be a defense. If, however, the system is installed in accordance with NFPA standards, it is difficult to see how one could establish a claim of gross negligence based on the installation. Any claim for gross negligence would have to be based on the maintenance or activity that occurred after the installation of the system.   

Bottom line, if the system for any reason malfunctioned, but was installed in accordance with NFPA standards, that certainly should be a valid defense.


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