Civil Liberties

Federal Appeals Court Ridicules Florida Cops For Using SWAT Team To Check On Barbershop Licenses

The cops tried to claim immunity from prosecution for doing their jobs.

Jerry L.Demings is Sheriff of Orange County, Florida.
Photo Credit: http://www.ocso.com/

Disney World is not the only fantasyland in Orange County, Florida, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals 11th Circuit, which Tuesday issued a remarkable ruling slamming the sheriff and a state barbershop inspector for imagining they needed—and then using— a SWAT team in a police raid to see if haircutting licenses were valid.

“It was a scene right out of a Hollywood movie,” the Court’s ruling began. “Teams from the OCSO [Orange County Sheriff’s Office] descended... 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 [DBPR] administrative inspection of barbershops to discover licensing violations.”

The Cout’s 44-page ruling, which will allow four barbers to proceed with a lawsuit that the cops violated their Fourth Amendment protection from unconstitutional searches, vividly describes how a team of local and state police ran amok—and then claimed immunity from prosecution, which the Court rejected, when the raid’s victims sued.

Notably, the ruling didn’t even talk about the blatant constitutional violations first, but instead snidely asked if the cops involved were complete idiots who thought they were so far above the law that they could ignore previous multiple rulings from the very same Court ordering cops not to conduct militarized SWAT raids as a routine tactic:  

“We first held 19 years ago that conducting a run-of-the-mill administrative inspection as though it is a crminal raid... violates clearly established 4th Amendment rights. We reaffirmed that principle in 2007... Today, we repeat that same message again. We hope that the third time will be the charm.”

The ruling described how what should have been a boring administrative task—checking for a current state license—spiraled out of control. The 2010 raid against the Strictly Skillz Barbershop began not as a response to a violent emergency, but as a fishing expedition led by two cops, DBPR’s Amanda Fields and OCSO’s Keith Vidler, a sheriff with the rank of corporal. Apparently, Vidler heard Fields say she was having a hard time with some barbers when checking their state licenses.

“Upon discovering that barbering without a license is a 2nd-degree misdemeanor under Florida law, Vidler became intrigued by the possibility of a collaboration between the Dept. of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) and OCSO, and spent over a month... developing a plan for a joint sweep operation,” it said. “All of the targeted barbershops were businesses that serviced primarily African-American and Hispanic clientele.” 

As Pete Kraska, a professor and chair of graduate studies and research in the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, recently told AlterNet after testifying in Congress about militarized local policing, there is a trend among far too many police agencies to launch out-of-control fishing expeditions.

“The plan also contemplated other law-enforcement objectives,” the Court wrote. “For example, the plan provided that any contraband discovered during the inspection had to be turned over to OCSO for prosecution and that the officers, with the assistance of narcotics agents, would identify and handle any narcotics, gather intelligence, and interview potential confidential informants.”

Meanwhile, the cops, as they were preparing for their SWAT raid, visited the barbers and basically saw nothing wrong—no expired licenses, no signs of drugs, no violent threats; only adults getting haircuts and kids getting trims before the first days of school. The police did not have a search warrant, the Court’s ruling also noted.

“On August 19, 2010, two days before the sweep, Inspector Fields and another DBPR inspector conducted walkthroughs of six of the target locations, including Strictly Skillz. Though the purpose of the walkthrough was to gather information for the operation, the inspectors did so under the guise of performing a routine inspection, verifying that the barbers’ licenses were current and valid and inspecting the barbers’ workstations. During the inspection of Strictly Skillz, the barbers were cooperative, no violations were found, and no citations were issued. Inspector Fields even commended [owner Brian] Berry on the tremendous progress he had made in the shop.”

Then, the federal judges describe the actual raid—with undercover cops and a SWAT team in full battle dress:

“Two plainclothes officers initially entered the barbershop to observe any potential violations. Five or six barbers were on duty at the time, and the shop was filled with anywhere from ten to twenty-five waiting customers. As the first day of the school year was approaching, several of the customers in the shop were children. Shortly after the arrival of the plainclothes officers, a 'whole bunch' of police cars pulled into the shopping plaza and completely blocked off the parking lot, preventing all ingress and egress. Officers then 'rushed into' Strictly Skillz 'like [a] SWAT team.' Based on the plaintiffs’ collective recollection, it appears that somewhere between eight and ten officers, including narcotics agents, descended upon the barbershop, along with a DBPR inspector. Some of the officers donned masks and bulletproof vests and had their guns drawn. The officers immediately ordered all of the customers to exit the shop and announced that the shop was 'closed down indefinitely.'"

More than an hour later—after the barbers had been cuffed and put on the floor—the cops left, as if nothing had happened.

“It was determined that all of the barbers had valid licenses and that the barbershop was in compliance with all safety and sanitation rules,” the Court’s ruling said. “No criminal violations were discovered, and [plaintiffs] Berry, Anderson, and Trammon were released from their handcuffs. The entire inspection lasted approximately one hour. After the officers and Inspector Fields left, the barbershop resumed operations.”

The barbers sued, saying their Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. The police countered that they had immunity from prosecution because they were doing their jobs. A lower federal District Court disagreed, pushing the case up to the Appeals Court. That Court said, yes, there are instances where police do have immunity—but not this time.

“A criminal raid executed under the guise of an administrative inspection is constitutionally unreasonable, we agree,” the Appeals Court held. “The raids were executed with the aid of SWAT team members, several of the officers pointed their weapons at patrons, and the club patrons and employees were searched and detained for over an hour and a half… We rejected the officers’ contention that the searches were valid administrative inspections, specifically noting that the ‘massive show of force and excessive intrusion’ displayed during the raids far exceeded that of previous administrative inspections of the club… No evidence exists that such force was justified.”

When Kraska testified before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee last week at a hearing on several federal programs that give military gear to local police for free, he said there were 2,000 SWAT raids a year—nationally—in the 1970s. Those were reactions to emergencies. Today, Kraska said there are 60,000 SWAT raids a year, and the vast majority—like the Orange County barbershop raid—are proactive. In other words, the police raid on the barbershop is not a rare event. What’s rare is that it ended up before two federal courts, with judges who called out several police agencies for their excessive tactics and unwarranted abuses of power.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).