By Mark David Blum, Esq.
An interesting question has arisen here in Onondaga County where Syracuse police officers have been caught red handed engaged in criminal activity. The problem is larger than just the officers involved because the Chief of Police supports the officers and finds no flaw in their behavior. How the question is handled by prosecutors and civil litigators will refocus attention on how to deal with rogue out of control police officers.
It is alleged by involved officers that they heard shots fired from the vicinity of a particular home in one of Syracuse’s poorer neighborhoods. Note I said police claim to have heard shots fired. We have to take their word on that. More importantly the shots were allegedly fired from near a particular home. Police do not claim that the shots themselves were actually fired from the particular home and there is no evidence to support such a claim.
Approaching the target home, police found nobody at home and the door locked. Without a warrant or valid exception to the warrant requirement, police broke down the front door, searched the entire home, let a dog escape which was later killed in traffic, and then police left. The home was unsecured and not even a note was left explaining to the homeowner who had been in his house and why.
It was patently and facially illegal for police to have forced their way into that home. The constitution of the United States and 200 years of legal precedent makes clear that police cannot just barge into a home on a whim. They are required to have a warrant. Yes, there are circumstances where police do not need a warrant: Including being in hot pursuit of someone or an emergency situation. None of the exceptions to the warrant requirement were present at this invasion.
Police themselves admit they did not hear the shots come from that particular home; only in its vicinity. They then argue that the shooter could have been inside and just locked the doors. Police argue we would not want them walking away because a criminal locked a door. My work experience tells me that if police had a good faith basis to believe there was a shooter inside the home, then they had probable cause to go get a warrant and enter lawfully. But police did not have enough information to give them a lawful basis to get a warrant because they could not identify the home as being the source of the gunfire. Since judges will sign warrants on at times the flimsiest of assertions by police, this goes to show how very little actual information police had that the source of the gunfire was the targeted home.
When police arrived at the home, they claim the home appeared abandoned. They then assumed that because the house was abandoned, there must be criminal activity afoot inside. Relying on the drug war police allege that abandoned homes are used as stash houses for guns and drugs. Hearing a barking dog on the other side of the door they state further supported their sudden conclusion that the home was being used as a stash house. They still had no information that either the shots were fired from the home or that the home was being used as a stash house. Had they possessed such information, then they could easily have obtained a search warrant. They did not and instead just busted down the front door and made entry.
This is life in the poorer neighborhoods of Syracuse. Syracuse Police are under the impression that because a home appears abandoned or that it is in a poor neighborhood, that they, the police, can just burst their way into the home without a lawful basis to do so. So convinced were they that they were going to find contraband, that police did not even hesitate to break and search the entire residence. They found nothing; not drugs and more importantly, not a shooter.
Nobody was home. The home was not abandoned but rather was owned and occupied by a musician and his Pomeranian. Police however, operating on a set of presumptions, prejudices, stereotypes, and pure arrogance cared not a whit about the law or constitution or the privacy of the homeowner when they busted down the door. This is an intolerable situation. What these officers did was facially and patently illegal and they should be prosecuted; loudly, so as to send a message to others on the job that there are lines you cannot cross. Police built a house of cards on one assumption after another yet had no evidence of anything whatsoever. The public is righteously outraged at police behavior but because the Chief supports police behavior, it is up to the District Attorney to stand up and defend the rights of citizens. No matter how you slice it, this forced entry and search of the property was illegal by every definition, constitutes a trespass and a possible burglary, and no citizen of Syracuse is going to be safe until strong measures are taken to ensure no such illegal behavior by police is tolerated.
Police argue that seven shots came from the direction of the backyard. Anybody, including police, know that gunshots reverberate and echo off the structures in the environment. While they say it was the direction of the backyard, police do not say that in fact the shots did come from the backyard. Their defense is predicated upon not wanted to leave an active shooter in the house. Had they any evidence that an active shooter was present, then they could have gotten a warrant and entered. Heck, had there been actual gunfire coming from the residence, police could have entered in hot pursuit. But none of that was evident. If they weren’t sure, then police could have staked out the house to assure no active shooter was inside.
But this case turns on the fact that the home appeared abandoned and no cars were found in the driveway. On that fact alone, police just assumed that they could enter the property without any justification or lawful basis. They assumed they would find contraband which would make the ends justify the means. Police also know that they will not be responsible for any wrongdoing or damage they cause because the City will pay any damages that a court awards after years of litigation. It is shameful and appalling that police operate on the assumption that because a house is not up to their suburban standards that it must be abandoned. It is disgusting that police just assume that every home is a stash house or hiding contraband if protected by a small dog. It is completely indefensible that police can just toss aside the law and constitution and break into a home without any good reason.
There needs to be a thorough investigation of how this event went down. We cannot trust the department to police its own because the Chief has already insulated his officers and justifies their actions. For the safety of the public, there should be a grand jury convened to look into the behavior of the involved officers and the policies and procedures of the department.
The weakest of our society, the poor who live in certain neighborhoods, are the real victims here. Yes the homeowner himself suffered the damage to his home and the death of his dog. But the problem is larger than just the one homeowner. He is not the first person subjected to a forced entry without any lawful basis by Syracuse police and I doubt he will be the last. Until someone draws a line in the sand and makes clear that unconstitutional and illegal searches by police are not going to be tolerated, then this is going to happen again and again. Nobody is safe under such circumstances. This is how the poor are treated by police because police know the poor cannot afford lawyers to fight back. But the poor have rights that are just as precious as those belonging to the rest of us and until there is a real stop put in place to illegal police activities, there are going to be more dead dogs, more broken doors, and more constitutional violations.