A disabled vet with PTSD accidentally called a suicide prevention hotline when intending to dial the Veterans Crisis Line. Within hours, he was dealing with DC Metro’s finest, dispatched to handle an attempted suicide. This brief quote from the DC Circuit Court of Appeals opinion [PDF] — part of veteran Matthew Corrigan’s first conversation with responding officers — sets the tone for the next several hours of Constitutional violations.
The officer who had asked for his key told him: “I don’t have time to play this constitutional bullshit. We’re going to break down your door. You’re going to have to pay for a new door.” Corrigan Dep. 94:15–18. Corrigan responded, “It looks like I’m paying for a new door, then. I’m not giving you consent to go into my place.” Id. 94:19–21.
This is as much respect as the responding officers had for Corrigan’s Constitutional rights. The rest of the opinion shows how they handled the supposed suicide case with the same level of care.
The opening of the opinion recounts just how dangerous it is to talk to nearly anyone linked to the government about your personal problems.
Matthew Corrigan is an Army Reservist and an Iraq war veteran who, in February 2010, was also an employee of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the night of February 2, 2010, suffering from sleep deprivation, he inadvertently phoned the National Suicide Hotline when dialing a number he thought to be a Veterans Crisis Line. When he told the Hotline volunteer that he was a veteran diagnosed with PTSD, she asked whether he had been drinking or using drugs and whether he owned guns. Corrigan assured her that he was only using his prescribed medication and was not under the influence of any illicit drugs or alcohol; he admitted that he owned guns. The volunteer told him to “put [the guns] down,” and Corrigan responded, “That’s crazy, I don’t have them out.” Corrigan Dep. 56:2–5.
Despite Corrigan’s assurances that his guns were safely stored, the volunteer repeatedly asked him to tell her “the guns are down.” Id. 56:2–14. When asked if he intended to hurt himself or if he intended to “harm others,” he responded “no” to both questions. Id. 69:6–18. Frustrated, Corrigan eventually hung up and turned off his phone, took his prescribed medication, and went to sleep. Id. 56:10–14; 70:6–7. The Hotline volunteer proceeded to notify the MPD.
The MPD picked up the case, drawing in new hunches and “facts,” picked up from the world’s most direct game of Telephone.
At approximately 11:13 p.m., according to the February 9, 2010, Barricade Report from Lieutenant Glover to the MPD Chief of Police, officers from the MPD Fifth District were dispatched to Corrigan’s home for “Attempted Suicide.” Barricade Rpt. 1. Certain undisclosed “information” led them “to believe the subject was possibly armed with a shotgun.”
“Undisclosed” may as well mean “imaginary.” The only thing relayed by the Hotline was that Corrigan owned guns. And owning guns is not the same as being armed with them, as Corrigan tried to make clear to the hotline operator. This wasn’t the only thing the MPD imagined into existence to justify its Constitutional violations and destruction of Corrigan’s home.
Upon arrival, the officers thought they detected a “strong odor” of natural gas and contacted the gas company, which turned off the gas to the row house.
Police officers have the best noses. The greatest. Perhaps the MPD should have spoken to someone who knew Corrigan and the place he lived FIRST.
[H]is landlady, upon being advised that the reason for the police presence was Corrigan’s attempted suicide, had insisted that was “outrageous” and repeatedly told the MPD officers that there was “a big misunderstanding” because she had known Corrigan for two years and had “never felt more comfortable with a neighbor in [her] life.” She had explained to the officers that Corrigan had guns because he was in the military and that his home had electric, not gas, appliances.
So, the police — faced with a possible suicide intervention — did what police do best: turned a neighborhood into a war zone and an “intervention” into a standoff where the police were the only willing participants.
The officers contacted Lieutenant Glover at home and he, in turn, gave orders to declare a “barricade situation…”
At 2:00 a.m., the ERT assumed tactical control of the situation. At 2:10 a.m., the MPD began to secure the perimeter around Corrigan’s home, including evacuating his neighbors.
Inside of this “barricade” was a sleeping war veteran. After being awakened by cops kicking at his front and back doors, Corrigan decided to retreat from the impending confrontation by moving to his bathroom and attempting to return to sleep. When it became apparent sleep wouldn’t be an option, he checked his voicemail — helpfully filled with demands of responding officers — and placed a call to one of the MPD’s “negotiators.”
He told the officer he was coming out of the house, that he was unarmed, and that he would be carrying his cellphone in his left hand so it wouldn’t be mistaken for a gun by trigger-happy suicide prevention “negotiators.” He exited his house, locked the door behind him (both to keep his dog in and the MPD out), and laid down on his back. Police zip tied his hand and told them they only wanted to talk to him. He had committed no crime. Corrigan voluntarily agreed to check in at the Veteran’s Hospital for PTSD treatment.
But he refused to give the “negotiators” permission to search his home. That’s what triggered the “fuck you and your Constitution” outburst from the MPD’s specially-trained suicide prevention unit. The MPD remained convinced Corrigan’s house was loaded with IEDs, weapons, and whatever else they could dream up to justify their unconstitutional invasion.
After Corrigan was in MPD custody, Lieutenant Glover ordered the ERT, led by Sergeant Pope, to break in Corrigan’s home to search for “any human threats that remained or victims.”
Screw the Constitution. There might be any number of lives to be saved. How do we know this? Because the DC Metro Police firmly believes this is always the case in these situations, despite any information gathered that points to the contrary.
As a matter of course, Glover explained, if an ERT unit is called to a scene it goes inside 99.9% of the time, see id. 18:12-14, because “[s]tandard protocol” assumes “if there’s one [person inside] there’s two, if there’s two there’s three, if there’s three there’s four, and exponentially on up,” id. 13:18-21.
In the MPD’s eyes, every individual is an army. With this being the MPD’s “standard protocol,” one wonders how it deals with the constant disappointment.
Upon breaking in Corrigan’s home, the ERT encountered only Corrigan’s dog; no one was found inside and no dangerous or illegal items were in plain view.
Frustrated by the lack of plain view dangerousness, the MPD decided to take it out on Corrigan’s uncooperative residence. It did this five hours later and, again, without a warrant.
During the second MPD search, EOD officers cut open every zipped bag, dumped onto the floor the contents of every box and drawer, broke into locked boxes under the bed and in the closet, emptied shelves into piles in each room, and broke into locked boxes containing Corrigan’s three firearms.
But wait, there’s more:
Upon returning home, Corrigan found his home in complete disarray: the police had left the contents of his bureau drawers and shelves scattered on the floor, his electric stove had been left on, and the front door of his home was left unlocked.
Recovered in the two unconstitutional searches were some weapons, smoke grenades, and fireworks. Corrigan’s mistaken call to the wrong hotline resulted in the ten weapons and ammunition charges. That evidence has been suppressed. And because the Appeals Court doesn’t find any of the MPD’s actions remotely justifiable, the officers performing the searches will have to face Corrigan’s lawsuit.
Even assuming, without deciding, that the initial “sweep” of Corrigan’s home by the MPD Emergency Response Team (“ERT”) was justified under the exigent circumstances and emergency aid exceptions to the warrant requirement, the second top-to-bottom search by the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit (“EOD”) after the MPD had been on the scene for several hours was not. The MPD had already secured the area and determined that no one else was inside Corrigan’s home and that there were no dangerous or illegal items in plain sight. Corrigan had previously surrendered peacefully to MPD custody. The information the MPD had about Corrigan — a U.S. Army veteran and reservist with no known criminal record — failed to provide an objectively reasonable basis for believing there was an exigent need to break in Corrigan’s home a second time to search for “hazardous materials,” whose presence was based on speculative hunches about vaguely described “military items” in a green duffel bag.
And assuming, without deciding, that the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement applies to a home, the scope of the second search far exceeded what that exception would allow. In the end, what the MPD would have the court hold is that Corrigan’s Army training with improvised explosive devices (“IEDs”), and the post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) he suffers as a result of his military service — characteristics shared by countless veterans who have risked their lives for this country — could justify an extensive and destructive warrantless search of every drawer and container in his home. Neither the law nor the factual record can reasonably be read to support that sweeping conclusion.
Better yet, the “screw your Constitution” officers have had their immunity stripped.
Because it was (and is) clearly established that law enforcement officers must have an objectively reasonable basis for believing an exigency justifies a warrantless search of a home, and because no reasonable officer could have concluded such a basis existed for the second more intrusive search, the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity across the board.
“Objectively reasonable” is not a high bar. But the MPD never had any intent of reaching it. The officer’s statement that there was “no time” for the Constitution made that very clear. The failure to find anything in plain view during the first sweep was treated as an excuse to turn a cooperative man’s (cooperative except for consent to search) upside down until officers could find something to excuse their steamrolling of the Fourth Amendment. They figured what they uncovered would save them after the fact. That’s the ends justifying the means and that’s precisely what the Fourth Amendment is there to protect against.