A federal appeals court ruled today that a San Carlos man can go ahead with a lawsuit against the city and two police officers who broke into his house and handcuffed him without a warrant in 2003.
A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected the officers’ claim they should be shielded from the lawsuit by Bruce Hopkins because they believed he might be in a diabetic coma.
The court said the officers had no reasonable basis for believing that Hopkins was undergoing a medical emergency that would justify entering his house without a court-approved warrant.
The incident occurred on Aug. 22, 2003, after Hopkins was in a minor car accident while on his way home from work after drinking several beers.
The driver of the other car told police that Hopkins appeared slightly intoxicated and had a smell of alcohol on his breath.
The officers then went to Hopkins’ house and, after he didn’t answer the door, broke into a screen door at the side of his house and handcuffed him at gunpoint. They brought him outside the house, where the other driver made a citizen’s arrest.
The officers, Armand Bonvicino and David Buelow, said they believed the “fruity” odor resembling alcohol that was allegedly detected in Hopkins’ breath by the other driver might have been a sign of a diabetic coma.
But the appeals court said that claim was “baseless.”
Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote, “This contention is unsupportable: the mere suggestion that someone has a smell resembling alcohol on his breath and appears slightly intoxicated does not create reasonable ground to suspect a diabetic emergency sufficient to justify a warrantless entry into a home.”
Reinhardt wrote for the court, “The officers’ conduct here unequivocally violated Hopkins’ clearly established constitutional rights.”
After the arrest, Hopkins was charged with hit-and-run driving and driving under the influence. But a San Mateo County Superior Court judge dismissed the charges after concluding that the officers’ entry into his home was illegal.
Hopkins then filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, claiming that the officers violated his constitutional Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.