The 4th Amendment Survives A Call To A Suicide Hotline
November 11, 2016 (Fault Lines) — The DC Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that police can’t perform a top to bottom search of your house for explosives just because you dialed the wrong number.
Matthew Corrigan was an Army Reservist and Iraq War veteran having a tough time of things. He was suffering from PTSD and depression, and had recently broken off a relationship, though, contrary to the country song trifecta, his dog was still alive. So he decided to call the Vetaran’s Crisis Line. Except either his finger slipped or he looked up the wrong number, because he ended up talking to a suicide hotline operator instead.
When she learned that he was a veteran, she immediately asked him if he had any guns in the home. Which, of course he did. But although he assured her that his guns were safely stored away and that he was taking his prescribed medication and not abusing alcohol or drugs, she just wouldn’t take “safe” as an answer. After he hung up on her, frustrated on her insistence that he meant to shoot himself or others, she called the cops.
So the DC Metropolitan Police Department decided to pay him a visit. For some reason the police could not later name, they became convinced that he was armed with a shotgun, and as they approached his home they noted the suspicious smell of natural gas. When they called Corrigan’s ex-girlfriend to get her input, she told him that he had “military items” in a green duffel bag, and that he was a veteran suffering from PTSD. So naturally, the police freaked out to their utmost, and began evacuating Corrigan’s neighbors and forming a perimeter around his house. As this was going on, Corrigan had already gone to sleep, thinking that his hanging up on the odd suicide hotline operator would be the end of it. It was two in the morning.
Now, police also had plenty of evidence that should have allayed their suspicions. For one thing, Corrigan’s landlady said that she was very comfortable with him, that he had guns because he was in the military, and that there was no way the smell of natural gas was coming out of his house, because all of his appliances were electric. Although police were freaked out that Corrigan wasn’t answering his cell phone, they didn’t seem to pay much attention to the voicemail message saying “I’m probably asleep.”
By four in the morning, officers decided to kick in his door and burst into his house. Let me reiterate. They were worried about a soldier with PTSD. He had a bunch of weapons. He had denied considering suicide. And the best idea they could think of, better than just calling it a night and checking in with him in the morning, was to send armed men into his home at maximum velocity. They apparently didn’t get further than the entrance, and Corrigan, who was loopy from his prescription meds, wandered into the bathroom to try to fall asleep again. At which point, he woke up a bit, turned on his cell phone, and saw dozens upon dozens of panicked voice mails from the police.
At this point, you might think, certainly common sense prevailed. Corrigan told police he needed a minute before he went outside to put on his clothes, and wisely pointed out that although he would be holding a cell phone, he would very much appreciate it if the officers didn’t murder him in a hail of gunfire when he stepped out the front door. He knelt on the ground and lay on his back, trying to look like something that even these particularly skittish police wouldn’t find threatening. This is all pretty good from a guy with serious PTSD, who would later that night check himself into a Veteran’s Hospital for his triggered symptoms. Given a split-second to make his decision, he somehow navigated all the correct choices.
The police weren’t quite so wise. At this point, they knew that he had worked with improvised explosive devices in Iraq, so they just assumed (better safe than sorry) that he had loaded up his home with bombs. They asked Corrigan if he could search, and the Court summarizes the exchange nicely:
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 responded, “It looks like I’m paying for a new door, then. I’m not giving you consent to go into my place.”
For the record, let me say again, this is a ridiculously brave man.
At this point, the police basically burglarized Corrigan’s home in a general search, upending his drawers, cutting his bags, and breaking every locked box in the home. His apartment was a wreck, and when he got home after being released from the Veteran’s Hospital and the local jail, he found that, with total disregard for public safety, they had left his stove on and his door open.
Corrigan suppressed all the evidence in his case (he was charged for having unregistered firearms) and then sued the officers involved, who asked for qualified immunity. The officers claimed that they had exigent circumstances to break into his home and look for bombs. The court pointed out that waiting five hours before entering wasn’t particularly exigent.
What’s amazing is that, although the Court ultimately allowed the officers to be sued, there was still a dissent, saying that there wasn’t a case on point enough to let the officers know they couldn’t ransack a home just because someone was a veteran with mental health problems.
It’s great to see that Corrigan got some sort of justice for his destroyed home, and for the pretty serious trauma of having his apartment invaded by the government at gunpoint. But the case is still a bit sad, because Corrigan’s status as a soldier with PTSD and the presence of weapons still served to protect the officers for their first search, the one that ended with Corrigan outside in the snow on his back.
The next time you thank a soldier for his service, throw in a little extra emphasis, because he didn’t just safeguard your rights. He lost a little of his own.