At 7 a.m. on January 20, 2007, DEA agents battered down the door to Thomas and Rosalie Avina's mobile home in Seeley, California, in search of suspected drug trafficker Louis Alvarez. Thomas Avina met the agents in his living room and told them they were making a mistake. Shouting "Don't you fucking move," the agents forced Thomas Avina to the floor at gunpoint, and handcuffed him and his wife, who had been lying on a couch in the living room. As the officers made their way to the back of the house, where the Avina's 11-year-old and 14-year-old daughters were sleeping, Rosalie Avina screamed, "Don't hurt my babies. Don't hurt my babies."
The agents entered the 14-year-old girl's room first, shouting "Get down on the fucking ground." The girl, who was lying on her bed, rolled onto the floor, where the agents handcuffed her. Next they went to the 11-year-old's room. The girl was sleeping. Agents woke her up by shouting "Get down on the fucking ground." The girl's eyes shot open, but she was, according to her own testimony, "frozen in fear." So the agents dragged her onto the floor. While one agent handcuffed her, another held a gun to her head.
Moments later the two daughters were carried into the living room and placed next to their parents on the floor while DEA agents ransacked their home. After 30 minutes, the agents removed the children's handcuffs. After two hours, the agents realized they had the wrong house—the product of a sloppy license plate transcription—and left.
In 2008, the Avinas—mom, dad, and both daughters—filed a federal suit against the DEA for excessive use of force, assault, and battery in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, and requested a summary judgement. That court ruled in favor of the DEA, and the Avinas appealed. Last week, the family got justice. Now the Avinas will either have a trial, or settle with the Feds.
While the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals defended the agents' rough treatment of Thomas and Rosalie, it also declared that yanking the Avina children of their beds and putting guns to their heads did, in fact, constitute the "intentional infliction of emotional distress."
"A jury could find that the agents pointed their guns at the head of an eleven-year-old girl, 'like they were going to shoot [her],' while she lay on the floor in handcuffs, and that it was excessive for them to do so," reads the Ninth Circuit's decision, which was filed June 12. "Similarly, a jury could find that the agents' decision to force the two girls to lie face down on the floor with their hands cuffed behind their backs was unreasonable."
More from the decision:
Under our case law, an issue of material fact exists as to whether the actions of the agents were excessive in light of the ages of B.S.A. (age eleven) and B.F.A. (age fourteen) and the limited threat they posed. See Tekle, 511 F.3d 839 (holding that officers were not entitled to summary judgment on excessive force claim where officers pointed guns at an eleven-year-old boy's head during the arrest of the boy's father); Motley v. Parks, 432 F.3d 1072, 1089 (9th Cir. 2005) (en banc) (holding that officer's act of pointing a gun at an infant during the search of a gang member's house was objectively unreasonable); see also McDonald ex rel. McDonald v. Haskins, 966 F.2d 292, 294-95 (7th Cir. 1992) (holding that officer's act of pointing his gun at a nine-year-old's head during the search of home was excessive use of force). Accordingly, we reverse the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the United States on B.F.A.'s and B.S.A.'s claims for assault and battery.
In a footnote, the court wrote:
Although there is evidence that the agents released the girls from their handcuffs once they realized how young they were, there is also evidence that the agents knew, prior to entering the girls' bedrooms, that the girls were children. Rosalie testified that, as the agents were heading towards the girls' rooms, she screamed at the agents several times, "Don't hurt my babies." Moreover, one of the agents testified at his deposition that, when he first saw one of the girls (presumably the older of the two girls), she appeared to be "12 [or] 13 years old."
The ruling concludes:
Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Avinas, a rational trier of fact could find that agents engaged in "extreme or outrageous" conduct when the agents: (1) pointed their guns at the head of eleven-year-old B.S.A. "like they were going to shoot [her]" while B.S.A. was lying on the floor in handcuffs; (2) forced eleven-year-old B.S.A. and fourteen-year-old B.F.A. to lie face down on the floor with their hands cuffed behind their backs; (3) left B.S.A. and B.F.A. in handcuffs for half an hour; and (4) yelled at eleven-year-old B.S.A. and fourteen-year-old B.F.A. to "[g]et down on the f[uck]ing ground." See Tekle, 511 F.3d at 856 (holding that officers were not entitled to summary judgment on claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress where officers pointed guns at eleven-year old's head during the arrest of the eleven-year-old's father); see also id. at 859 (Fisher, J., concurring). Accordingly, we reverse the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the United States on B.F.A.'s and B.S.A.'s claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
As a side note: While this raid was conducted under President George W. Bush, the deputy administrator of the DEA at that time was Michele Leonhart. She is now the administrator of the DEA, thanks to an appointment by President Barack Obama. Furthermore, the Obama Administration could have declined to defend the DEA in this case. Instead, Obama's Justice Department has decided to make the case that federal agents should be allowed to hold guns to the heads of children.
*A reader has objected to the original headline, which said "putting a gun to an 11-year-old's head," because there was no evidence in the brief filed by the Avinas, or in the 9th Circuit's ruling, that the officer's gun touched the little girl's head. The reader insists that the most common reading of the expression "put a gun to my head" implies the barrel touches flesh. I'd rather be clear than right, so I've changed to "pointing at."