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Shot to Death by Police for Betting on a Football Game? The Rise of Paramilitary Force in America

Heavily armed SWAT teams are increasingly used for such small tasks as raiding poker games and trying to stop underage drinking. How did we get here?

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By all appearances, these raids were drug sweeps. Shop owners told the Sentinel that police asked them where they were hiding illegal drugs and weapons. But in the end, thirty-four of the thirty-seven arrests were for “barbering without a license,” a misdemeanor for which only three people have ever served jail time in Florida.
The most disturbing aspect of the Orlando raids was that police didn’t even attempt to obtain a legal search warrant. They didn’t need to, because they conducted the raids in conjunction with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Despite the guns and handcuffs, under Florida law these were licensure inspections, not criminal searches, so no warrants were necessary.

That such “administrative searches” have become an increasingly common way for police to get around the Fourth Amendment is bad enough. More disturbing is the amount of force they’re opting to use when they do. In the fall of 2010, police in New Haven, Connecticut, sent a SWAT team to a local bar to investigate reports of underage drinking. Patrons were lined up at gunpoint while cops confiscated cell phones and checked IDs. There have been similar underage drinking SWAT raids on college fraternities. The Atlanta City Council recently agreed to pay a $1 million settlement to the customers and employees of a gay nightclub after a heavy-handed police raid in which police lined up sixty-two people on the floor at gunpoint, searched for drugs, and checked for outstanding warrants and unpaid parking tickets. Police conducted the September 2009 raid after undercover vice cops claimed to have witnessed patrons and employees openly having sex at the club. But the police never obtained a search warrant. Instead, the raid was conducted under the guise of an alcohol inspection. Police made no drug arrests, but arrested eight employees for permit violations.

Federal appeals courts have upheld these “administrative searches” even when it seems obvious that the real intent was to look for criminal activity as long as the government can plausibly claim that the primary purpose of the search was regulatory. In the case of the Orlando raids, simply noting the arrests of thirty-four unlicensed barbers would be enough to meet the test.

But the Fourth Amendment requires that searches be “reasonable.” If using a SWAT team to make sure a bar isn’t serving nineteen-year-olds is a reasonable use of force, it’s hard to imagine what wouldn’t be. At least a couple of federal appeals courts have recognized the absurdity. In 2009 the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit struck a small blow for common sense, allowing a civil rights suit to go forward against the sheriff’s department of Rapides Parish, Louisiana, after a warrantless SWAT raid on a nightclub thinly veiled as an administrative search. And in 1995 the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit made an even broader ruling, finding that having probable cause and a warrant for the arrest of one person in a club did not justify a SWAT raid and subsequent search of the entire club and everyone inside.

But other legal challenges to paramilitary-style administrative searches have been less successful. Consider the bizarre case of David Ruttenberg, owner of the Rack ‘n’ Roll pool hall in Manassas Park, Virginia. In June 2004, local police conducted a massive raid on the pool hall with more than fifty police officers, some of whom were wearing face masks, toting semi-automatic weapons, and pumping shotguns as they entered. Customers were detained, searched, and zip-tied. The police were investigating Ruttenberg for several alleged drug crimes, although he was never charged. The local narcotics task force had tried unsuccessfully to get a warrant to search Ruttenberg’s office but were denied by a judge. Instead, they simply brought along several representatives of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and claimed that they were conducting an alcohol inspection. Ruttenberg was cited only for three alcohol violations, based on two bottles of beer a distributor had left that weren’t clearly marked as samples, and a bottle of vodka they found in his private office.

 
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