• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

— "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."

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!