Wednesday, April 13, 2005

San Jose Charter of Hell's Angels v. City of San Jose (9th Cir. - April 4, 2005)

There are a sufficiently large number of interesting things in this case to warrant discussion that I'm inclined not to discuss any of them, but rather to merely enourage people to read the opinions. The underlying facts that give rise to the lawsuit revolve around a search conducted by the San Jose Police Department against some alleged members of the Hell's Angels in which the SJPD literally ripped apart the premises -- in some cases with jackhammers -- in order to obtain marginally relevant and duplicative evidence, and also killed several dogs in settings that are at least a little disturbing. The discussion of one of the officers blowing away several dogs with repeated shotgun blasts, shooting the head of one of the shotgunned dogs at point blank range as it vainly tried to raise its mangled body, and the vision of one dog slinking backwards in retreat after watching shotgun blasts tear apart two of its colleagues are chilling. Especially since Judge Paez makes at a reasonable case that this carnage was utterly unnecessary.

There are very important doctrinal issues at stake as well, not the least of which is the validity of the belief -- initially articulated by the Ninth Circuit long ago -- that police officers have utterly no discretion to depart from the terms of a search warrant, even if it involves unimaginable and unnecessary carnage. So if a search warrant lets the police search for -- as here -- any link between the person and the Hell's Angels, and every inch of the premises contains such an indication (e.g., a sticker or writing that says "Hell's Angels"), the police are not only allowed, but are indeed affirmatively required to tear down every inch of the premises and cart it away. The majority here disagrees, principally on the basis of the wording of this particular warrant, but Judge Bea (in dissent) says that this is exactly what's required (although he tries to avoid the horror by again saying that the language of this particular warrant doesn't compel such a result).

This is a good case to read. It's also perhaps a good one to be taken en banc. I have always thought that it was untenable to hold that police officers have qualified immunity whenever they're executing a search warrant because they are compelled to do whatever the warrant says. Warrants authorize the search; they don't force the officers to engage in wanton destruction or grab every single piece of responsive material, even if the police don't need (or want) it. This case might be a reasonable one in which to overrule the contrary fiction that several members of the Ninth Circuit appear to embrace.

Anyway, read this case. It's chilling. And remember that whatever they can do to the Hell's Angels, they can do to anyone.