San Diego On January 26, 2000, Oceanside police entered DeAnn Sutton-Griffith's home with neither search warrant nor permission and confiscated her dog. Preceding the home invasion was a dispute Sutton-Griffith had with the woman who sold her the puppy for $100, then decided she wanted it back. Sutton-Griffith refused. And after some angry phone calls between the two women, three police officers showed up at the house. One of them went in and got the golden retriever.
Sutton-Griffith sued the city over the incident, and in March of 2001, a North County jury unanimously awarded her $150,000 of the City of Oceanside's money. In North County Times reports on the case, Oceanside deputy city attorney Frank Balistreri spun the defeat as an opportunity to review police procedures for handling domestic disputes. Despite what the jury concluded, Balistreri insisted, "Legally, [the officers] had a right to do what they did, but tactically it was a bad choice."
Former Oceanside resident Mark Martin doesn't believe the incident was an isolated bad choice on the part of a few officers but an indication of an unwritten Oceanside Police Department policy that he says "basically ignores the Fourth Amendment. And I'm saying that from personal experience and from DeAnn Sutton-Griffith's case."
The personal experience Martin speaks of was an incident that took place at his 3400-square-foot home on Amador Drive in the Ocean Hills area of southeast Oceanside a month prior to the dog grabbing. But, unlike that case, the Oceanside police were cleared of wrongdoing when Martin brought legal action against them.
On December 28, 1999, Martin, a big rig owner-operator, had been out to see a movie with Traci Trotman, who rented a room in the house. "So we had just gotten back from the movie, she was in her room, I was in my office, and there was somebody at the front door. I went down to see who it was. I looked through the peephole, and it was a uniformed officer, and it scared me because I had had the police called on me in the past by my ex-wife. She and I have been through what is now a five-year custody battle, and I have actually gone to jail over...a restraining-order violation. So I was not looking forward to going to jail again."
Martin decided not to open the door. Instead, he says, he went back upstairs "and told Traci that there was an officer there and told her not to go down there. I called my divorce attorney and asked him if I had a right not to answer the door. And he said, certainly I had that right not to answer the door, but that I might want to, just to see what it was all about."
Following that advice would have saved Martin a lot of hassle. But he decided not to open the door or even to ask through the closed door what the officers wanted. Instead he and Trotman "kind of hid out in Traci's room because that room was over the garage and we could look out and see what the officer was doing. Traci was doing that and whispering to me where he was going, his movements and such. The officer walked around the house and entered the side gate. I went and grabbed a blank check because I thought I might be needing some bail. I could just feel my heart rate accelerate, I was really scared and nervous. And then I went and grabbed my camcorder. I would say about 10 to 20 minutes after the initial contact they started pounding on the front door -- ferocious pounding, and it was nonstop, three or four times a second."
Martin didn't answer the door. According to police statements, one of the officers entered the side gate, which was latched but not locked. "I found out later that the first officer had opened the side garage door and had had a peek and then backed out and called for a backup officer."
Martin and Trotman had no idea what was going on as the officers were entering the house. "After the pounding stopped," Martin recalls, "I got pretty scared, and the whole time my heart was beating faster and faster. At that point I called my attorney a second time, and I started the camcorder and laid it on the floor of my roommate's bedroom, and from that point you can hear from the videotape what was said."
Though the video portion of the recording reveals nothing, on the audio you can hear Martin ask Trotman, "Are they in the house?" and Trotman answer, "Yes." Then Martin, with nervousness in his voice, tells his lawyer's receptionist, "They're in my house. That's a little step beyond; I didn't even let them in.... Can you please tell him now.... Well, okay, if I get shot dead I've got my camcorder and my roommate here.... I thought we had laws in this country against this sort of thing."
Martin explains, "I really thought they were breaking the Fourth Amendment by coming in."
On the tape, Martin, still on the phone, then asks Trotman to go downstairs and see what the police want. But when Trotman opens the door to do so, she meets Officers Benjamin Ekeland and Shawn Kelly in the hallway. "Oceanside Police! Don't even move... Miss, what is your name?" one of them says in a commanding voice.
Trotman responds, "You've just broken in. Do you have a warrant?"
The officer repeats, "What is your name, miss?"
Trotman, with voice rising: "Do you have a warrant?"
Officer, near shouting, "What is your name, miss?"
"Do you have a warrant?"
"What is your name?"
"Do you have a warrant?"
"What is your name?!"
Still on the phone with his attorney's office, Martin decided the situation in the hall was getting too heated. "I am talking on the phone," he recalls, "but I am hearing her arguing with the officers, and so I just put the phone down at one point and went out there. But before I confronted the officers -- I didn't want to scare them -- I started yelling who I was and that my hands were in the air. I was trying to defuse the whole situation."
"Hello...hello..." you can hear him say on the videotape. "It's my house, my hands are in the air. What's the problem? What are you guys doing here?"
An officer responds, "We got a phone call from a lady's husband or her father."
"Check the welfare," the other officer says.
"Check the welfare," the first officer repeats.
Though Oceanside police wouldn't comment on the case because it is still under litigation, Oceanside deputy city attorney Pam Walls explains, "Dr. Trotman, the roommate's father, called and said that he had been trying and trying to get ahold of his daughter, and he thought something seriously was wrong. And he submitted a declaration in the case, where he said that he asked that the department go out there urgently because he feared something very serious was wrong because his daughter was not responding."
"We called multiple times," one officer can be heard saying on the tape.
"They did not call the house numerous times," Martin recalls. "They called the house one time, and they were on the line five seconds, and they didn't even leave a message. They didn't even allow Traci's machine to finish before they hung up. And that was not the officers that called, that was dispatch. They didn't try calling me. From [the license plate of] my truck on the driveway, they had my name and my name was in the phone book. But they did not call."
On the tape, Trotman continues to refuse to identify herself for another minute until Martin says, "Just tell them what it is."
"It's Traci," Trotman responds.
"You got some ID?" asks one officer.
"Will you show us some ID?" asks the other.
"You're the lady we're looking for," adds the first. "Put your ID over here, miss."
"I'm not going to give you my ID," Trotman responds.
"Just give them the ID," Martin yells. "Gosh, what are you, an idiot? Give them the ID, Traci."
"You're the lady we're supposed to be checking on, okay," says one officer. "Miss Trotman," says the other, "I know for a fact I banged on that door repeatedly. I rang the doorbell until it was burned out. Why didn't you answer?"
"We announced ourselves," the first officer says.
Martin since contends that the officers never announced themselves. He offers his video camera, which never recorded any yelling, as evidence. "And it was a state-of-the-art camera at the time, dual microphones...it is extremely sensitive to sound."
The incident ended with the party of four moving downstairs, guns back in holsters, and the officers calling their dispatch officers to report that they'd found Traci Trotman in good health. Martin returned to the phone, still connected to his attorney's office, and told them, "It's a big misunderstanding.... It looks like we're getting it cleared up. It has something to do with my roommate, not me. Whew! Boy."
In the aftermath of the incident, Martin, who says he didn't sleep in his house for a week afterward, became convinced that the police, in violation of the Fourth Amendment, had illegally searched his house. "These guys were coming into my house," he says, "guns drawn, and they were using this 'check the welfare' as an excuse. But what if somebody was using a hair dryer, or a caulking gun -- as you can see, I have headphones -- or a cordless drill? If I had had one of those items in my hand and an officer was coming around the corner silently, and I happened to drop that hair dryer to waist level, I might not be talking to you right now. That is the reason why I am really pushing this."
So Martin sued. He submitted his case, dated May 13, 2002, to senior U.S. district judge Rudi M. Brewster, suing the City of Oceanside and Officers Shawn Kelly and Benjamin Ekeland for a violation of Martin's Fourth Amendment right to be secure in his own house. "The defendant's hope," his brief states, "is to convince this Court to deconstruct the Fourth Amendment and reconstitute it in such a way that anyone could call up any police department in the country, claim to be related to anyone else, say that they are having trouble reaching someone, and by that solitary, unverified phone call, have the police break into that person's house to 'check the welfare.' "
"In California," Pam Walls, the deputy city attorney who defended Oceanside and the two officers, responds, "there is something called the community caretaker exception. It's an acknowledgment that policemen, like firemen, also go in to save people's lives. That's what this situation was."
The caretaker exception, Walls explains, requires an emergency. And, though there proved to be no emergency at Mark Martin's home that evening, Walls says the sum of circumstances, starting with Dr. Trotman's call to the police, justified the home entry. "They went there," she says, "they knocked on the door for at least 20 minutes, and nobody answered, even though the cars were there and it looked like somebody should be there. So they were faced with a situation of do they go in and make sure people are okay, or do they walk away and maybe somebody ends up dead because they turned their backs? So, of course, once they went in and verified [that Trotman was okay], they talked to them and then they left. [Martin] even characterized it as just a misunderstanding."
Walls adds, "If he had come to his door and answered it, the whole thing would have gone away."
In a summary pretrial judgment, Judge Brewster found that the officers and city had "qualified immunity," from the charges. Martin is appealing the decision. Despite the favorable judgment, the City of Oceanside has offered $20,000 to settle the matter. Martin has refused to take it. "I want justice," he says. "I want to get this in front of a jury."