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Corrigan v. District of Columbia

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

November 8, 2016

Matthew Corrigan, Appellant
District of Columbia, et al., Appellees

          Argued April 18, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:12-cv-00173)

          Elizabeth M. Rademacher, Student Counsel, argued the cause for appellant. With her on the briefs were Tillman J. Breckenridge, William R. Cowden, Patricia E. Roberts, and Jacob M. Derr, Student Counsel.

          Carl J. Schifferle, Assistant Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, argued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief were Karl A. Racine, Attorney General, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General, and Loren L. AliKhan, Deputy Solicitor General.

          Before: Rogers, Brown and Pillard, Circuit Judges.


          Rogers Circuit Judge.

         Following two warrantless searches of his home by members of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD"), Matthew Corrigan sued the District of Columbia and individual MPD officers pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, for violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. He now appeals the grant of summary judgment to the defendants, challenging the district court's rulings that there was no constitutional violation and that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

         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.

         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. Accordingly, we reverse the grant of summary judgment in part and remand the case for further proceedings. Upon remand, the district court can address a remaining claim of qualified immunity based on reasonable reliance on a supervisor's order and Corrigan's claim of municipal liability, which the district court did not reach.


         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.

         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." Id. Corrigan lived at 2408 North Capitol Street, in Northwest D.C., in the basement apartment of a row house that had its own front and back doors. 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. Id.; D.C. Super. Ct. Tr. 113-14. The officers contacted Lieutenant Glover at home and he, in turn, gave orders to declare a "barricade situation, " which meant that the ERT also went to Corrigan's home. The MPD Command Information Center advised that Corrigan, a white male, age 32, had no known criminal record and there were no outstanding protective orders against him. An ERT investigator learned that Corrigan was a U.S. Army combat veteran who had served recently during the Iraq war and owned a rifle and several handguns. Additionally, he had recently terminated a romantic relationship and was under psychiatric care for PTSD and depression. He also had a dog.

         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. Barricade Rpt. 2; see D.C. Super. Ct. Tr. 113-14. At 2:30 a.m., Lieutenant Glover arrived on the scene and called on the EOD to respond. According to Lieutenant Glover's testimony, Corrigan's upstairs neighbor, who was his landlady, had told MPD officers that Corrigan occasionally had overnight guests, including an ex-girlfriend. See Glover Dep. 16:20-22; 33:1-5. An officer had reached the ex-girlfriend by cell phone, and she said Corrigan was a veteran taking prescribed medication for PTSD, had expertise in IEDs, and trained others in detecting and mitigating IED incidents. Id. 35:11-37:6. She also recalled seeing a green duffel bag containing "military items" in Corrigan's home that she had been told "not to touch" because "they were his guns and military stuff." Id. 36:17-21.

         Around 3:00 a.m., MPD negotiators attempted to speak with Corrigan by dialing his cell phone number, calling his name over a public address system, and knocking or kicking his front door. The MPD had no indication, however, that Corrigan's failure to answer the door was suspicious. The officers had been told by his landlady and ex-girlfriend that Corrigan was likely sleeping, having taken his prescribed medication; his voicemail message stated "Hi, you've reached Matt, if I'm unavailable, I'm probably asleep." Indeed, his 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." D.C. Super. Ct. Tr. 106, 110. 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.

         Corrigan testified that around 4:00 a.m. he became aware of someone kicking at his front door, and then his back door, and was "terrified, " feeling he was being "hunted." Corrigan Dep. 70:11-21. He moved from his bedroom to the bathroom where he felt safest and tried to go back to sleep. Id. 70:21-71:3. When he turned on his cell phone at 4:16 a.m., see Barricade Rpt. 4, he received a flood of voicemails. He returned the call of the detective who was one of the MPD negotiators. Corrigan initially said he was at another address, because he was scared, but within minutes admitted he was at home. Having noticed the flood light and all the police officers at the front and back of his home, he told the negotiator he was coming outside but needed to put on clothes because of the fallen snow. He described the clothes he would be wearing and that his cell phone would be in his left hand when he came out so the police would not shoot him because they thought he had a gun. Corrigan Dep. 76:12, 21-22.

         Exiting his home within 20 minutes of first speaking to the negotiator, Corrigan closed and locked his front door so his dog would not get out and no one could enter his home. Corrigan Dep. 96:18-19; see also id. 77:6-17. In order to appear as non-threatening as possible, he knelt on the ground and lay on his back. MPD officers immediately secured his hands with a white "zip-tie, " searched his person (on which he had only a military identification card and his cell phone), and took him to a police vehicle where he was told he had not committed any crime and the officers only wanted to talk to him. See id. 97-98. Eventually, he was taken to a Veterans Hospital where he voluntarily admitted himself for PTSD symptoms triggered by the night's events. First Am. Compl. ¶ 19.

         When Corrigan was questioned prior to being removed from the scene by the MPD, he refused to give his house key to an MPD officer or to consent to the MPD entering his home. 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.

         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." Glover Dep. 10:15-17. Glover testified that he thought the "sweep" of Corrigan's home was necessary because the officer who spoke to Corrigan's ex-girlfriend had not reported whether he asked her whereabouts or visually confirmed her location; Corrigan's ex-girlfriend or other persons had stayed overnight in his home, so other persons could have been present; a gas leak had been reported and Corrigan had initially "dece[ived]" the police about his location and had told the Hotline volunteer that he did not intend to harm "others, " potentially implying that someone else might be inside. Id. 13-14, 40. 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.

         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. Nonetheless, Lieutenant Glover thereafter ordered the EOD, led by Officer Leone, to break in Corrigan's home again to search for "any hazardous materials that could remain on the scene and be dangerous to the public or anybody else in that block or area." Id. 10:17-22. In Glover's view, a thorough top-to-bottom warrantless search was necessary because the EOD had not cleared Corrigan's home of any hazardous materials or devices. Glover said he believed such hazards "to be possibly inside" based on Corrigan's ex-girlfriend's reference to a duffel bag containing unspecified "military items." Id. 57:16-17. 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. See Pl.'s Answers to Interrogs., ¶ 8; First Am. Compl. ¶ 22. Inside the locked boxes, the EOD found, and seized, an assault rifle, two handguns, a military smoke grenade, a military "whistler" device, fireworks, and ammunition.

         Corrigan was charged that day, February 3, 2010, with three counts of possession of an unregistered firearm and seven counts of unlawful possession of ammunition. Later, when he was released from the Veterans Hospital into police custody he was arraigned in the D.C. Superior Court, after spending three days in the central cell block. He was held at D.C. jail until he was released on his own recognizance on February 19. 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. First Am. Compl. ¶ 22; Pl.'s Answers to Interrogs., ¶ 8. On April 19, 2012, the D.C. Superior Court judge granted Corrigan's motion to suppress the seized firearms and ammunition, finding that the government could not show facts justifying the warrantless entry and search of his home. Dist. of Columbia v. Corrigan, No. 2010 DCD 2483, Super. Ct. Tr. 10 (Apr. 19, 2012). The District government nolle prossed all the charges.

         Meanwhile, on February 1, 2012, Corrigan sued the District of Columbia and individual MPD officers, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the warrantless entries and searches of his home, and the seizure of his property from his home, violated the Fourth Amendment. First Am. Compl. ¶ 27. The district court, following discovery and dismissal of some officers from the case, initially denied the remaining defendants' motion for summary judgment, but sua sponte reconsidered and granted summary judgment. It ruled that no Fourth Amendment violation had occurred in view of the exigent circumstances, and that if the community caretaking doctrine applied to a home, it would also justify the searches. The district court ruled there had been no violation of a clearly established right, concluding the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.


         Corrigan contends that neither the ERT "sweep" for injured persons nor the EOD search for "hazardous materials" was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment because the officers lacked a reasonable basis for believing that exigent circumstances necessitated their entry and search. Further, he contends that the MPD officers should not receive qualified immunity because it is clearly established that the police may not enter and search a home without a warrant "when there is no indication that anyone else is present in the home, or that there is imminent danger to law enforcement or the public necessitating immediate entry." Appellant's Br. 8. He points out that the officers knew only that he was a military veteran suffering from PTSD and allegedly threatening suicide, that he had been trained to mitigate IEDs, that he possessed a duffel bag containing "military items, " and that officers had smelled gas upon first arriving at the row house where Corrigan lived, but had no reason to believe that he had any intent to harm others or materials to do so. The district court's application of the exigent circumstances, emergency aid, and community caretaking exceptions to the warrant requirement were thus flawed because the officers lacked the requisite indication of imminent danger. At the very least, any search must be tailored to the exigent need, and the EOD's "broad and vigorous search was unreasonable because it was not [so] tailored." Id. at 9. Corrigan also emphasizes that at no time during the five-hour barricade did the officers make any apparent attempt to obtain a search warrant.

         Our review of the grant of summary judgment is de novo. See Wesby v. Dist. of Columbia, 765 F.3d 13, 18-19 (D.C. Cir. 2014). Summary judgment is appropriate only "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The latter is reviewed de novo, but this court in considering the former, "like the district court, [must] 'examine the facts in the record and all reasonable inferences derived therefrom in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party.'" Robinson v. Pezzat, 818 F.3d 1, 8 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (quoting DeGraff v. Dist. of Columbia, 120 F.3d 298, 299-300 (D.C. Cir. 1997)).

         "The doctrine of qualified immunity protects police officers 'from suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 unless they have violated a statutory or constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.'" Fox v. Dist. of Columbia, 794 F.3d 25, 29 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quoting City & Cnty. of San Francisco v. Sheehan, 135 S.Ct. 1765, 1774 (2015)). To overcome the officers' claim to qualified immunity, the court must determine (1) whether the facts in the record show the officers' conduct violated a constitutional right, and if so, (2) whether the constitutional right was clearly established at the time of the incident. Id. (citing Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232 (2009) (summarizing two-step analysis in Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001)). We address both questions to avoid "leav[ing] the standards of official conduct permanently in limbo." Camreta v. Greene, 563 U.S. 692, 706 (2011).


The Fourth Amendment provides:
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.

         At its core, the Fourth Amendment protects "the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion." Silverman v. United States, 365 U.S. 505, 511 (1961). "It is axiomatic that the 'physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed.'" Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740, 748 (1984) (quoting United States v. U.S. Dist. Court, 407 U.S. 297, 313 (1972)). Warrantless searches and seizures inside a home are "presumptively unreasonable, " Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 586 (1980), "subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions, " Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967). Unless there is evidence to show "'exigent circumstances'" or another exception sufficient to justify a warrantless entry, the MPD searches violated Corrigan's Fourth Amendment right. See Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 477-78 (1971). "[T]he police bear a heavy burden when attempting to demonstrate an urgent need that might justify [a] warrantless search[] . . . ." Welsh, 466 U.S. at 749-50.

         Here, the MPD officers rely on three exceptions to the warrant requirement: exigent circumstances; the emergency aid doctrine; and the community caretaking doctrine as extended to a home. Because the emergency aid doctrine is essentially a type of exigent circumstance, see Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006), we analyze them together.

         1. Exigency can justify a warrantless search "when there is compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant." Michigan v. Tyler, 436 U.S. 499, 509 (1978) (emphases added). Without providing an exclusive list, the Supreme Court has recognized several exigent circumstances that could justify a warrantless entry and search, such as the hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect, United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38, 42-43 (1976); the need to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence, Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 460-61 (2011); and situations, as the MPD claimed here, where there is a "need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury, " Brigham City, 547 U.S. at 403 (internal quotation marks omitted). Whether exigent circumstances exist to justify a warrantless search "is judged according to the ...

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