Court Denies Qualified Immunity For Police Who SWAT-Stormed Florida Barber Shop To Conduct Licensing ‘Inspection’
September 18, 2014 by Ben Bullard
Law enforcement officers who conducted a warrantless SWAT-style raid on an Orlando barber shop, ostensibly to help inspectors conduct a routine occupational licensing exam, violated the proprietors’ 4th Amendment rights and are not protected from personal liability under the qualified immunity doctrine.
So ruled the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta on Tuesday, harshly condemning Orange County, Florida, officers for their 2010 raid of the Strictly Skillz barber shop — a staged event the court compared to “a scene right out of a Hollywood movie.” That’s how the court began its 44-page ruling:
It was a scene right out of a Hollywood movie. On August 21, 2010, after more than a month of planning, teams from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office descended on multiple target locations. They blocked the entrances and exits to the parking lots so no one could leave and no one could enter. With some team members dressed in ballistic vests and masks, and with guns drawn, the deputies rushed into their target destinations, handcuffed the stunned occupants — and demanded to see their barbers’ licenses. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office was providing muscle for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s administrative inspection of barbershops to discover licensing violations.
What’s incredible about this show of force is that the inspectors had visited the same business only two days before — without the muscle — and discovered the shop was in total compliance with all occupational licensing requirements. No violations whatsoever. Reason reports that the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation is authorized “to conduct such inspections only once every two years.” Yet there they were again, two days after finding everything aboveboard, with a small army of police. The cops told customers to leave immediately and handcuffed Brian Berry, Strictly Skillz’ owner, as well as two barbers.
The entire hit had been an orchestrated effort to discover evidence of illegal activity that had nothing to do with occupational licensing — though that was the cover story for the raid — and everything to do with contraband. Berry sued the police and the police appealed, arguing their actions were within the scope of legal searches (Really? Without a warrant?) and the officers protected from personal liability under the qualified immunity doctrine.
No way, said the court.
We first held nineteen years ago that conducting a run-of-the-mill administrative inspection as though it is a criminal raid, when no indication exists that safety will be threatened by the inspection, violates clearly established Fourth Amendment rights. …We reaffirmed that principle in 2007 when we held that other deputies of the very same Orange County Sheriff’s Office who participated in a similar warrantless criminal raid under the guise of executing an administrative inspection were not entitled to qualified immunity. …Today, we repeat that same message once again. We hope that the third time will be the charm.
… [T]he plaintiffs contend that the search of Strictly Skillz, which they allege was undertaken with an inordinate display of force, failed to conform to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement for reasonableness. Because we have twice held, on facts disturbingly similar to those presented here, that a criminal raid executed under the guise of an administrative inspection is constitutionally unreasonable, we agree.
…It has long been clearly established that a warrantless administrative inspection must be narrowly tailored to the administrative need that justifies it. Here — where the authorized purpose of the inspection was simply to check for barbering licenses and sanitation violations, and there is no indication that the defendants had any reason to believe that the inspection would be met with violence — the manner in which the supposed inspection of Strictly Skillz was undertaken was unreasonable from its inception and was, in fact, a search. Our cases and those of the Supreme Court have long and repeatedly put officers on notice of these facts. Because, under the facts alleged by the plaintiffs in this case, Vidler and Leslie were active participants in the unconstitutional search of Strictly Skillz, a jury could find them liable for the plaintiffs’ resulting constitutional injuries.
Decisions like this, precipitated by lawsuits over illegal searches, need to happen much more often.
Read much more on the court’s decision at Reason, [http://reason.com/blog/2014/09/16/federal-appeals-court-rebukes-florida-co] with plenty of backstory here. [http://reason.com/archives/2010/12/13/the-swat-team-would-like-to-se ]