Thursday, October 15, 2009

ACLU settles lawsuit with Bernalillo County Sheriff's office

The lawsuit stems from searches deputies made during their massive manhunt for accused deputy killer Michael Paul Astorga.

In 2006, deputies surrounded Astorga’s father in law’s home with guns drawn and ordered family members to exit out of their home. After handcuffing each of them, the officers proceeded to search the residence.

But, The 10th Circuit Court ruled a families association with a suspected criminal is NOT sufficient probable cause to obtain a search warrant. The ACLU says the court’s decision and settlement sets clear limits for officials, who they say violated the constitution in their pursuit of Astorga.

The Tenth Circuit included this statement in their decision:
Although we are sympathetic to the urgency of the officers’ search for Astorga, we conclude that these actions violated the Fourth Amendment. Adhering to established Supreme Court precedent and the unanimous case law of this and other courts, we hold that a familial relationship is insufficiently particularized to justify invading an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy.
The controversy surrounding this issue erupted in March of 2006 as law enforcement officials began a massive manhunt for Michael Astorga, who was suspected of shooting and killing Sheriff’s Deputy James McGrane, Jr. during a routine traffic stop. Astorga’s father-in-law, Rick Poolaw and his daughter, Chara Poolaw immediately began helping law enforcement efforts to apprehend Astorga after BCSO notified them he was a murder suspect.

At the time, Astorga was married to another daughter of Rick and Cindy Poolaw. Fearing for their daughter’s safety, the Poolaws offered up information that they thought might lead the police to Astorga. However, despite their unwavering cooperation and Rick Poolaw’s honorable 25 year service record as a State Police Officer, BCSO officers obtained a search warrant for the Poolaw residence based solely upon the fact that the Poolaw daughter, then Astorga’s wife, was known to stay at her parents’ house from time to time.

On the evening of March 24th, 2006, officers surrounded the Poolaw residence with guns drawn and ordered Rick, Cindy, and other family members to exit their house. After handcuffing each of them, the officers proceeded to search the Poolaw property and residences. Officers also confiscated several items belonging to the family. Four days later, BCSO officers seized Chara outside of her workplace in front of her colleagues and clients and held her at gunpoint while they searched her car. Despite her cooperation with BCSO, the officers performed this search without a warrant and only on the grounds that she was an in-law of Astorga.

From a news release:
We and the Poolaws have always been sympathetic to BCSO officers for the death of one of their own,” said ACLU-NM Co-Legal Director Jane Gagne. We also have high regard for the great risks that law enforcement officers face every day in the line of duty. But our sympathy and our regard do not diminish our determination and our duty to honor and protect the Constitution.

Rick, Cindy, and Chara Poolaw were deeply hurt by BCSO's actions against them, especially since Rick Poolaw is a respected retired State Police Officer, and they had helped BCSO in the search for Astorga. The Poolaws are gratified that the New Mexico Federal District Court and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals have confirmed that the Fourth Amendment retains its vitality even in times of tragedy.

ACLU-NM Managing Attorney George Bach, along with Co-Legal Directors Jane Gagne and Phil Davis, filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs.

No comments: