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Does an Innocent Family Give up Its Rights If It Knows a Felon?

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Jerry Ray Bowen was a felon and probable gang member who apparently shot his sawed-off shotgun at his girlfriend’s car as she drove away following a violent breakup. Not surprisingly, the police wanted to locate Bowen and his sawed-off shotgun.  The police had heard that Bowen “might be staying at his foster mother’s home,” and obtained a search warrant for her home and any weapons found there.

Augusta Millender, the foster mother, and other members of her family were home when the SWAT team arrived to execute the search warrant.  At 5:00 a.m. they were ordered to leave their home while the police searched for Bowen and his sawed-off shotgun, neither of which were found at the Millender home.  What police did find, however, was Ms. Millender’s own (not-sawed-off) shotgun, and a box of .45 caliber ammunition.  These items were seized.

Ms. Millender, who had been at home sleeping when the SWAT team burst through her front door, filed suit against the police for violating her Constitutional rights, specifically, her right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.

Civil rights claims against police can be uphill battles, but in the right circumstances, the cases are definitely worth pursuing.  Often, the existence of a search warrant forecloses suit under the Fourth Amendment and allows the police to rely on “sovereign immunity” to avoid responsibility for their misconduct. In the Millender case, however, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the police were not immune from suit because even though a judge signed the search warrant, the evidence that Bowen or his shotgun would be found in the Millender home was so scant that no reasonable officer should have believed that there was probable cause in the first place.

Victims of civil rights violations by police officers face a tough battle when they seek compensation from the government.  Pursuing these claims requires skill and experience.  At Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, we have brought cases against police officers and other government officials to protect our clients’ constitutional rights.