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10th Circuit Remands N.M. Unlawful-Arrest Case

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a district court’s summary judgment against a man who filed a civil-rights complaint after he was arrested in Los Lunas, New Mexico for refusing to leave his home when ordered out by a police officer investigating a domestic argument.

“Although the order to ‘step out of the house’ could be construed as an investigatory detention rather than a full arrest, that distinction does not matter in an individual’s own home,” wrote Circuit Judge Timothy Tymkovich in the court’s decision.

The court articulated a list of reasons no “exigent circumstances” in the Los Lunas case satisfied legal requirements for a police officer to enter a home, or seize a person from within a home. The arresting officer had no probable cause to believe a crime had occurred other than the man’s refusal to step outside. The mans refusal to comply with that order was not a crime, the court concluded, because it was not a lawful order.

An officer arrived at the Los Lunas home in Sept. 2007 in response to a neighbors’ anonymous report of a loud argument. When they arrived, Michael Story told them he and his wife had argued, but that she had left the residence.

An officer demanded that Story disclose the subject of the argument. When he questioned whether he had to provide details about the earlier argument, the officer ordered him outside. When the man refused, the officer pulled him out of the house and arrested him for refusing to obey the order. Storey filed a civil rights claim for wrongful arrest, retaliatory arrest and excessive force. A district court summarily ruled against him on the first two claims and a jury deadlocked on the excessive force claim.

Officers may enter a home without a warrant when where there is an immediate need to protect the lives or safety of officers or others, the court wrote. Even then, the manner and scope of the search must be reasonable.

Because the district court had concluded Storey’s arrest was lawful, it never considered his claim that the arrest was retaliatory. The appellate court remanded the case to the lower court for further consideration of Smith’s retaliatory arrest complaint.

Attorneys for the arresting officer argued he is shielded from the civil-rights action by qualified immunity because the law was vague about whether the arrest was lawful. The appeals court disagreed. The law is clearly established, the court found. Without probable cause that a crime has occurred, or exigent circumstances that require immediate action without a warrant granting police the right to seize a person or their home, the arrest was not lawful.

Story v. Garcia, Oct. 1, 2012

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