West Virginia Man Sues Deputy Sheriff For Breaking Into His Home and Arresting Him Without a Search Warrant

front_door.jpgA West Virginia man is suing a Wayne County deputy sheriff for arresting him without sufficient reason on domestic violence charges in June 2012. Dwayne Ferguson claims that the deputy sheriff, Stafford Poff, entered his home without a warrant and proceeded to arrest him in a way that caused him substantial pain.

According to Ferguson’s complaint, on June 22, Poff received a police dispatch stating that a “domestic incident not in progress” was taking place at the Ferguson residence. Poff did not obtain a warrant before arriving at the Ferguson address, where he allegedly banged on the door and demanded to be let in. When Ferguson’s daughter refused to do so, Poff allegedly threatened to kick the door down, before doing so and forcing his way into the residence. Poff then found Ferguson and his wife in their bedroom, where he allegedly threw him on the bed face down and put a knee on top of him. Ferguson claims that Poff twisted his shoulder in a way that caused him severe pain.

Poff then took Ferguson to court on charges of domestic assault, domestic battery, and obstruction. Ferguson was put in Western Regional Jail, only to be released later on a $4,000 bond. When Ferguson’s wife, who is mentally handicapped, failed to appear at the hearing on the charges, Ferguson’s attorney successfully had the charges dismissed. Ferguson claims that Poff committed invasion of privacy, false arrest, false imprisonment, and assault and battery. He seeks damages, attorney’s fees, court costs, and an order requiring deputies to obtain a warrant for crimes that they have not witnessed. There is no word as to whether Poff has also been charged in a criminal case.

Every West Virginia criminal defense attorney knows that one of the most sacred protections is that of privacy protection within the home. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution states that the government (usually law enforcement officials) cannot search the home without a search warrant based on probable cause, supported by “oath or affirmation” describing the place to be searched and the individuals or objects to be seized. “Probable cause” is a slippery term, but it generally refers to a reasonable amount of suspicion, supported by circumstances strong enough to justify a prudent person’s belief that the person committed a crime, or that evidence of crime could be found in that location. Once the government official has such suspicion, he must submit an affidavit to a judicial magistrate in order to receive a warrant to search the property.

Over time, the definition of the “home” and “right to privacy” have been somewhat expanded, so that in certain places where privacy would be expected both by the individual and society, a police cannot search without a warrant. There are exceptions to the general rule, however. For example, if it is a case of “exigent circumstances,” the basic search requirements are usually waived. Exigent circumstances exist if evidence is in immediate danger of being destroyed or a suspect is in immediate danger of escaping. There is nothing to indicate whether Poff thought that either was possible when he allegedly broke into Ferguson’s home.