MILWAUKEE, WI — The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that it is not a violation of constitutional rights if police break down a citizen’s door, search the home, and confiscate firearms, so long that they believe it is in the citizen’s best interest.
A Doctor’s Concern
The lawsuit stems back to an incident that occurred on May 22, 2011. A psychiatrist, Dr. Michelle Bentle, phoned police to report that a patient had expressed a suicidal thought during an outpatient appointment; the woman had received some bad news and privately expressed grief during a difficult appointment.
At approximately noon, Milwaukee Police were dispatched to search for Krysta Sutterfield, age 42 at the time, in order to forcibly detain her and commit her for a mandatory medical evaluation. In Wisconsin, the mere suggestion of suicide is grounds for forcible police detention.
Police had a description of Ms. Sutterfield’s vehicle but could not immediately locate her; police checked her garage and it was empty. Hours passed. At 2:45 p.m., Dr. Bentle notified police that her patient “had called her some minutes earlier stating that she was not in need of assistance and that the doctor should ‘call off’ the police search for her,” according to court documents.
Confrontation At Home
However, police did not call off the search. At 8:30 p.m., Officer Jamie Hewitt found that Sutterfield was at home. Sutterfield answered the door when police knocked, but would not permit them to enter. She told them that she did not need assistance and had requested that the search be called off. However, police would not take ‘no’ for an answer.
“Unable to gain admittance to the house,” the court summary states, officers “concluded that the police would have to enter it forcefully.” Approximately 9 hours had passed since the doctor’s concern had been reported.
The showdown continued for approximately 30 minutes. Police requested backup, and Ms. Sutterfield called 9-1-1 to attempt to call off the pushy officers. As the call was in progress, police breached her door and accosted her.
The recorded 9-1-1 call documented Sutterfield’s voice demanding that police “let go of her and that they leave her home.” Instead, she was shackled and detained against her will.
Despite having no warrant, officers helped themselves to a “proactive sweep” of the woman’s home. During the search, police opened up a locked, opaque case and discovered her pistol. Officers seized the pistol, as well as a BB gun (physically incapable of taking a human life), and her Wisconsin CCW license.
Sutterfield was taken into police custody and to a hospital for a forced medical evaluation at the county’s Mental Health Complex; the state’s forced evaluations can last for as long as 72 hours.
Following the ordeal, Sutterfield filed a lawsuit against the Milwaukee Police Department for violating several of her civil rights, including her rights under the 2nd Amendment and the 4th Amendment. Sutterfield contended that her home was illegally searched without a warrant and that her firearms were illegally seized.
U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller in Milwaukee dismissed the case, initially. Sutterfield later appealed. The appeal did not go in her favor.
“Although the court had found it ‘likely’ that Sutterfield’s Fourth Amendment rights had been violated, the court discerned no basis to hold Milwaukee liable for the violation,” Judge Illana Rovner wrote for the three-judge panel on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She conceded that “the intrusions upon Sutterfield’s privacy were profound,” and noted, “at the core of the privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment is the right to be let alone in one’s home.”
However, since the court believed that the forced entry was done with Sutterfield’s best interests in mind, the circumstances were allowable under the 4th Amendment. Judge Rovner wrote, “There is no suggestion that (police) acted for any reason other than to protect Sutterfield from harm.”
“Even if the officers did exceed constitutional boundaries,” the court document states, “they are protected by qualified immunity.”
In short, Sutterfield’s privacy (which was admittedly encroached upon) was left unprotected by the Bill of Rights because of the “exigent circumstances” in which police executed an emergency detention — with no warrant, no criminal charges, and no input from the judiciary. Similarly, the gun confiscation was also deemed as acceptable due to the so-called “emergency” which police claimed had been taking place for 9 consecutive hours.
The federal ruling affirms a legal loophole which allows targeted home invasions, warrantless searches, and gun confiscations that rest entirely in the hands of the Executive Branch. The emergency aid doctrine enables police to act without a search warrant, even if there is time to get one. When the government wants to check on someone, his or her rights are essentially suspended until the person’s sanity has been forcibly validated.