A Norristown family who claims they were wrongly targeted by deputy U.S. Marshals in
the spring of 2010 when the law enforcement officers mistakenly entered the plaintiffs’ Montgomery County home by force while looking for a fugitive can proceed with their federal complaint against the United States government, a federal judge in Philadelphia has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, ruled that dismissing James and Mildred Hill’s lawsuit would be premature at this time.
The couple filed a federal complaint against the federal government late last year over allegations that federal agents broke down the plaintiffs’ door in the early morning hours of March 2, 2010, and held the entire family, including a number of children and grandchildren, at gunpoint while searching for a fugitive.
The complaint says that the agents, all deputy U.S. Marshals who never identified themselves upon their entry into the home, eventually conceded that they were actually looking for someone who was said to be inside the neighboring home.
The plaintiffs claim they had to shuck out $831.95 to repair their broken front door.
The Hills, who allege agents held them and their family members at gunpoint before the law enforcement officers’ error was realized, originally brought suit against the defendants for claims of assault, battery, false arrest and false imprisonment, the court record shows.
The United States subsequently filed a motion to dismiss the suit, after which the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint this past February that dropped the false arrest claim but maintained the claims for assault, battery and false imprisonment.
On March 29, the government filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint, which was opposed by the plaintiffs.
In his May 14 memorandum and order, Buckwalter wrote that the litigation could proceed because the facts alleged in this complaint at this stage of the case could potentially give rise to claims for both assault and false imprisonment.
“Though discovery could prove that the officers’ conduct was reasonable under the circumstances, the facts as alleged do not do so,” the judge wrote. “Should discovery prove such, Defendant can raise these issues again at summary judgment.”
The government had argued that the Hills have not adequately pled assault because the amended complaint doesn’t allege any attempt by force to do injury to any of the home’s occupants, the judicial memorandum states.
But Buckwalter wrote that the defendant doesn’t address the issue of “apprehension,” and he notes that a portion of the amended complaint states that the deputy U.S. Marshals aimed their handguns and rifles at all of the plaintiffs, with such an action “clearly intended to cause apprehension of imminent harmful bodily contact.”
“As such, assuming the facts as pled in the Amended Complaint are true, Plaintiffs have properly alleged a claim of assault,” Buckwalter wrote.
While the defendants claim the behavior of the agents under the circumstances was “standard law enforcement practice” designed to ensure the safety of the officers and bystanders, Buckwalter wrote that the supposed reasonableness of the behavior cannot be determined by the facts alleged in the amended complaint, and it would be inappropriate for him to dismiss the suit at this stage of the litigation.
The government also urged Buckwalter to dismiss the false imprisonment claim, arguing that there was no unlawful confinement, since the entry into the home was done lawfully due to the fact that the agents reasonably believed they had the correct residence, the memorandum states.
The facts alleged in the amended complaint, however, “do not describe reasonable officer conduct,” the judge wrote in allowing that claim to proceed.
“Though discovery could prove otherwise, when taken in a light most favorable to the Plaintiffs, the description of the officers’ conduct was unreasonable,” Buckwalter wrote.
The judge pointed out that the agents ordered the plaintiffs to remain in their home after they left the house to search the adjacent home.
“If the officers had no right to confine the Hills upon learning they were in the wrong house, they may have falsely imprisoned the family – regardless of whether or not the Marshals had an initial right to be in the house,” Buckwalter wrote.