Officers with Maryland's Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD) allegedly executed an illegal no-knock raid against the wrong residence, assaulting a man and terrorizing his family in their home, according to a new lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland.
The intended target was an alleged drug dealer.
Police instead raided the home of Hernan Palma, a Montgomery County firefighter who says he was awoken by "what sounded like an explosion" at 4:30 a.m. on September 13, 2019, as cops beat down his front door. He assumed they were burglars, as he has no recollection of the group announcing themselves as police officers.
"Although it was dark, Hernan could see masked men with guns pouring into his living room and the hallway leading to his daughter's bedroom," the suit reads. "As [he] hurriedly turned the corner of the hallway, he felt a long-barreled rifle push into his chest. Afraid of being killed, Hernan grabbed the barrel of the rifle and pushed it away from him. He was then immediately tackled by three or four of the Police Officer Defendants."
As Palma tried to sit up, officers punched him in the face and flipped him over on his back, folding his legs up toward his buttocks in a hog-tie position as they tried to handcuff him. His face remained pressed into the wall. "The officers worked together to hold Hernan down with their body weight and applied so much pressure that Hernan's face made a crack in the wall," says the suit.
His wife Lilian and his 13-year-old daughter were handcuffed and restrained separately. The former struggles with chronic kidney disease; during her interaction with the cops, they applied such force she worried they would rip the catheter our of her shoulder, through which she receives hemodialysis treatments five times weekly.
Officers proceeded to "ransack" the home, including barricading through several doors, damaging walls, and breaking windows. The suit notes that one door in particular "was burst open with so much force that it blew off the hinges and hit Lilian's hemodialysis machine."
In May 2019, four months prior, MCPD zeroed in on David Zelaya—whose mother rented a basement apartment from the Palmas—for possession and distribution of drugs, and illegal possession of firearms. The Palmas maintained a landlord-tenant relationship with his mother and were not privy to David's illegal activity; they note that his mother specified that he had an on-campus apartment at the University of Maryland, College Park.
The Palmas lived in the main portion of the house and only rented out the basement, which had its own separate entrance. Officer Robert Farmer failed to disclose the fact that the Palmas lived in a separate upstairs residence, and that he had no probable cause to search that part of the residence, in his application for a no-knock warrant.* The Palmas and their attorneys allege that this omission renders the warrant illegal.
"Upon information and belief, and as evidenced by MCPD's investigation, Defendant Farmer knew that the Palmas lived upstairs in a separate residence with their teenage daughter and intentionally omitted this information from the warrant application while describing the residence as a 'single family' home," according to the suit. "Upon information and belief, as evidenced by MCPD's investigation, Defendant Farmer knew that there was no probable cause to believe Zelaya or any evidence of a crime would be found in the Palmas' portion of the house." Police also failed to use their body cameras appropriately, shuttering the recording after a brief period without explanation.
The MCPD investigation was extensive, as the suit entails, and included several opportunities for police to arrest Zelaya without using such overwhelming force, much less against the wrong person. Cops surveilled him covertly for at least 30 days and conducted an undercover marijuana drug sale in July or August. They did not arrest him then.
The Palmas are also suing the county for failing to "have adequate policies or training to ensure that no-knock warrants were limited to the situations when they were necessary." They are hardly alone: In Chicago, for example, there have been 10 similar suits in recent years as police botched no-knock warrants and used them against the wrong people.
In that vein, the Palmas' lawsuit gets at something deeper. Law enforcement agencies typically claim that no-knock warrants are necessary in situations where police may be met with deadly force; for his part, Zelaya was suspected of illegal possession of firearms. What is problematic is that police declined to arrest Zelaya at an easy, opportune moment. Even more fraught is that a drug sale was deemed high enough stakes to detain anyone in the first place, much less destroy someone's home.
*Correction: This article originally mischaracterized a portion of the defendant's warrant application.