A woman who was 68 years old when her home was raided in 2012 by an Evansville SWAT team tracking down online threats against police can sue the city for unreasonable use of force, a federal judge has ruled.
The judge also held the city has no claim of qualified immunity and must face trial on a charge that it violated the woman’s constitutional rights through an official policy or custom.
At least eight SWAT team members descended on Louise Milan’s home, used flash-bang grenades and smashed in her open front door while executing a search warrant. Officers were looking for the source of anonymous online threats against police posted on the website Topix.com.
Records from an Internet service provider showed the posts were made from an IP address connected with Milan’s house, where she lived with her 18-year-old daughter. A police detective driving by the house before the raid determined there was one unsecured wireless access point near Milan’s home, but he couldn’t tell whether it was Milan’s house.
Court documents say this fact wasn’t mentioned in obtaining the warrant, nor was the presence nearby of suspects known to police, including Derrick Murray. He was arrested without incident the day after the raid on Milan’s house and pled guilty to a federal charge stemming from the threats.
Video of the raid was the lead story on at least one local newscast after the police contacted local TV stations before the raid to “repay the favor” of alerting the department to the online threats, according to the record.
But District Judge William T. Lawrence of the Southern District of Indiana, Evansville Division, denied the city’s motion for summary judgment on Milan’s claim of excessive use of force and its defense of qualified immunity. Lawrence also denied the city’s motion for summary judgment on Milan’s claim against the city established under Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978).
Lawrence granted the city’s summary judgment motions on Milan’s claims of unreasonable search and seizure and false arrest/unreasonable detainment. He ruled the search was not constitutionally defective and that Milan was handcuffed only during the time of the search.
However, Lawrence wrote that officers believed before the raid that Murray was ultimately responsible for the posts and there was little evidence showing other potential suspects would be at Milan’s home. The video, Lawrence wrote, shows a troubling sequence of events.
“(T)he videos show that the SWAT team officers broke through Milan’s window and door and tossed (rather than strategically placed) the distraction devices into her home within seconds of arriving at her front door. It is questionable whether the officers had sufficient time to look inside to ensure that no one would be injured by the devices,” Lawrence wrote.
There also was little likelihood police would encounter a violent person, Lawrence wrote. “Lastly, there did not appear to be a dangerous point of entry. It was a clear day, and the front door (but not the storm door) was open when the SWAT team arrived.”
“For these same reasons, the Court also concludes that the EPD’s use of force ‘so clearly exceeded the bounds of reasonableness in the circumstances that it cannot be said to lie near the “hazy border between excessive and acceptable force” along which qualified immunity shields officers from liability for their snap judgments, if those judgments prove to be wrong upon further reflection,’” Lawrence wrote, citing the language of Estate of Escobedo v. Bender, 600 F.3d 770, 780 (7th Cir. 2010).
Milan has a Monell claim against the city because it is disputed whether Evansville Police Chief Billy Bolin approved the SWAT team plan used in this case, according to Lawrence’s Jan. 6 ruling.
Lawrence’s order scheduled a three-day jury trial beginning April 6 at the Winfield K. Denton Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Evansville. The case is Louise Milan v. City of Evansville, et al., 3:13-CV-1.