United States: From Unlawful Search To Injunctive Relief

On Wednesday, January 16, 2019, federal Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim ordered the Rohnert Park police department to retrain its officers on the proper methods and laws regarding probation searches. This significant ruling stems from a previous decision that held three of the city's officers responsible for violating the rights of the Barajas family.

After police officers from the City of Rohnert Park in California came to Elva and Raul Barajas' home in November 2014, the family filed a civil suit alleging that the officers conducted an unlawful search of their home despite the "search condition" of their son Edgar Perez' probation. The case — led by MoFo Commercial Litigation and Trial Practice Group chair Arturo González and litigation partners Alexis Amezcua and Caitlin Blythe — was based on allegations that Rohnert Park police officers Jacy Tatum, David Rodriguez, and Matthew Snodgrass conducted a 'suspicionless' search of the family's home while seeking out their son.

Despite the officers' lack of a search warrant and the couple stating their son wasn't home, police officers entered the home without the consent of the Barajas'. One officer entered through a back door with his gun drawn while the other officers were still at the front door seeking permission to enter.

Listen to what Alexis had to say about the events leading up to the case in her radio interview with KSRO's Steve Jaxon:

In a time of heightened awareness of and resistance to racial profiling by police officers, the Barajas family fought to make sure they didn't become another statistic. "We brought this lawsuit to help other families," said plaintiff Raul. "We hope things will change, and that law enforcement officers will respect the rights of all families in our community."

On November 1, 2018, following a trial in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, a jury determined that the officers entered the home unreasonably under the U.S. and California constitutions. The jury awarded total damages of $75,000 to the Barajas', and $70,000 in punitive damages against Jacy Tatum, the officer who entered through the back door with his gun drawn.

At the end of the day, the decision had everything to do with the family's rights in their own home. "The jury understood that parents do not forfeit their constitutional rights simply because their child is on probation," said Alexis.

The evidence in the case showing that the Rohnert Police Department engaged in widespread constitutional violations when conducting probation searches led MoFo's team to file an injunction to stop the department from conducting further illegal searches. The court granted the injunction requiring the police department to adopt a policy governing "probation searches" and to train its officers in the policy.

Injunctive relief was deemed necessary by the Court because the testimony given at the trial made it clear that the Defendants believed they did nothing wrong and had no plans to change their practices or provide additional training to officers.

Alexis noted that the purpose of the injunction was to bar "defendants from barging into families' homes simply because one of the residents is on probation," and added, "We realize that searching probationers is important, but it can be done in a way that respects the rights of other people who live in the home."

Of the decision, Arturo stated, "This is a fantastic order. It's essentially what we've been asking for since the day we filed [the lawsuit]. All this family ever wanted was for the officers and the City to get training. For reasons I don't understand, the City has been resistant, and now the judge has ordered them to do so."

Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Morrison & Foerster LLP. All rights reserved

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Authors
Caitlin Sinclaire Blythe
 
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