Today a federal appeals court rebuked police in Orange County, Florida, for mounting a warrantless, SWAT-style raid on a barbership under the pretense of assisting state inspectors. "We have twice held, on facts disturbingly similar to those presented here, that a criminal raid executed under the guise of an administrative inspection is constitutionally unreasonable," says the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. "We hope that the third time will be the charm."
On August 19, 2010, two inspectors from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) visited the Strictly Skillz Barbershop in Orlando and found everything in order: All of the barbers working there were properly licensed, and all of the work stations complied with state regulations. Two days later, even though no violations had been discovered and even though the DBPR is authorized to conduct such inspections only once every two years, the inspectors called again, this time accompanied by "between eight and ten officers, including narcotics agents," who "rushed into" the barbershop "like [a] SWAT team." Some of them wore masks and bulletproof vests and had their guns drawn. Meanwhile, police cars blocked off the parking lot.
The officers ordered all the customers to leave, announcing that the shop was "closed down indefinitely." They handcuffed the owner, Brian Berry, and two barbers who rented chairs from him, then proceeded to search the work stations and a storage room. They demanded the barbers' driver's licenses and checked for outstanding warrants. One of the inspectors, Amanda Fields, asked for the same paperwork she had seen two days earlier, going through the motions of verifying (again) that the barbers were not cutting hair without a license (a second-degree misdemeanor). Finding no regulatory violations or contraband, the officers released Berry and the others after about an hour.
Although ostensibly justified as a regulatory inspection, the raid on Strictly Skillz, like similar sweeps of other barbershops that same day, was part of an operation hatched by Fields and Cpl. Keith Vidler of the Orange County Sheriff's Office (OCSO), who hoped to find drugs, "gather intelligence," and "interview potential confidential informants." The barbershops chosen for the sweeps "were apparently selected because they or barbers within them had on previous occasions failed to cooperate with DBPR inspectors," the court says. "All of the targeted barbershops were businesses that serviced primarily African-American and Hispanic clientele."
The 11th Circuit concludes that the Strictly Skillz raid, as described by Berry and the other plaintiffs, was "clearly established to be illegal from its inception," violating state law as well as the Fourth Amendment. "The facts of this case—when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs—adequately establish that the 'inspection' of Strictly Skillz amounted to an unconstitutional search," the court says, "and that the unconstitutionality of such a search was clearly established at the time that the search was executed." Hence a federal judge was right to rule that Vidler and Deputy Travis Leslie do not deserve qualified immunity.
At this stage of the case, where Vidler and Leslie are trying to get the lawsuit dismissed based on the qualified immunity enjoyed by officers who do not blatantly disregard well-established constitutional law, judges are supposed to assume that the plaintiffs can prove the facts they allege. But there seems to be little real dispute about what the cops did that day; the exact number of officers involved, for example, is not going to be crucial in judging whether the search was legal.
"The August 21 search was executed with a tremendous and disproportionate show of force, and no evidence exists that such force was justified," the court says. "Despite the fact that neither OCSO nor the DBPR had any reason to believe that the inspection of Strictly Skillz posed a threat to officer safety, the record indicates that several OCSO officers entered the barbershop wearing masks and bulletproof vests, and with guns drawn; surrounded the building and blocked all of the exits; forced all of the children and other customers to leave; announced that the business was 'closed down indefinitely'; and handcuffed and conducted pat-down searches of the employees while the officers searched the premises. Such a search, which bears no resemblance to a routine inspection for barbering licenses, is certainly not reasonable in scope and execution….The show of force and search were all the more unreasonable in view of the fact that DBPR inspectors visited Strictly Skillz a mere two days before the search and had already determined that the barbershop and its employees were in compliance with state regulations."
Radley Balko noted the Florida barbershop raids, along with other examples of criminal searches disguised as regulatory inspections, back in 2010.
[Thanks to John K. Ross for the tip.]