On the heels of our E-newsletter last week (#141, A Man’s Car is His Castle) comes a story with a different twist on the connection between cars, homes, and protection under the law.
In 2007, the police in Sulphur, Oklahoma attempted to pull over a car after noticing what they felt were faulty taillights. The young driver, Joshua Burchett, didn’t stop until he reached his parents’ home a few blocks away. Then, after parking in the driveway, Burchett quickly disappeared inside the home.
A police deputy requested backup and then pounded on the door of the home. Burchett’s father, Jose Mascorro, opened the door to the sight of a police revolver pointed at his head, along with shouted demands to drop to his knees.
Christina Mascorro appeared at the door to see what was going on with her husband and son. She asked the officer if he had a warrant; the response was a blast of pepper spray to her face. Ms. Mascorro was able to call 911 as the police entered the home with guns still drawn.
Burchett was arrested, as were his parents who were charged with obstructing justice. The parents sued the police, citing illegal entry, excessive force, and false arrest. The police countered that they had qualified immunity from prosecution because their actions were justified while chasing a suspect.
The Burchett case reached the Tenth Circuit US Court of Appeals, where the three-judge panel found that law enforcement’s forced and warrantless entry into the home to hunt down a driver fleeing from a traffic stop was not justified, as it might be for certain felony cases.
The appellate court found that the Mascorros could sue the police, who lost their qualified immunity when they conducted an illegal search and seizure. The judges’ ruling concluded, “No reasonable officer would have thought pursuit of a minor for a mere misdemeanor traffic offense constituted the sort of exigency permitting entry into a home without a warrant.”
We have written in this space previously about recent court rulings that weaken Fourth Amendment protections. NMA E-newsletter #119 (The Pressure to Redefine our Rights) from April 2011 summarizes many of our concerns. Several media outlets requested (and received) permission to republish that E-newsletter.
With that backdrop, it is especially important to report a story in which one of the nation’s higher courts upheld the strict principles of the Fourth Amendment, reproduced in its simple but elegant language here:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.