"An incident that is more like home raids by Red Guards during China’s Cultural Revolution than like what we should expect in the United States of America"
Sometimes, the recitation of facts in a judicial opinion speaks volumes. A decision this morning from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Ohio, captioned Bray v. Planned Parenthood, et al., No. 12-4476 (6th Cir. Mar. 21, 2014), is one of those cases.
Michael Bray, the plaintiff, is not a terribly sympathetic character; he wrote a book in 1994 advocating violence against abortionists, and served four years in prison in the 1980s for a series of bombings of abortion clinics. (Like Bill Ayers, Bray never injured anyone and denies any intent to do personal harm, but as we know, setting off bombs in populated areas is a hazardous business). In 1993, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that clinic protests by he and his wife Jayne did not violate the Civil Rights Act of 1871, a/k/a the Klu Klux Klan Act, but the following year, at the urging of the Clinton Administration, Congress responded by passing the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. Planned Parenthood immediately filed suit against Bray in Oregon under the new federal statute that was more or less designed to target him, and won a $110 million jury verdict, reduced on appeal to $850,000. It then set about trying to collect the judgment from Bray's book sales, which as you may imagine don't seem to have been particularly extensive.
By 2007, further legal proceedings were underway in Ohio, where the Brays live with their seven children. Bear in mind that, while Planned Parenthood at this juncture was entirely in the right in seeking to collect on a valid judgment, this was no more than that: debt collection. Yet when the Marshals came to the Bray house, they brought not only four Marshals, two county sheriffs' deputies and an ATF agent, but also two outside lawyers for Planned Parenthood and a number of other unknown individuals (apparently from Planned Parenthood as well) to root through the house videotaping the place, taking books, computers, manuscripts, cameras and camcorders. Many of those items were later returned by the court on grounds of having been improperly seized, but in some cases only well over a year later and after much legal wrangling. Here's how the Sixth Circuit characterized these facts (as alleged in the Brays' complaint):
If the facts alleged in the complaint are true, this case involves an incident that is more like home raids by Red Guards during China’s Cultural Revolution than like what we should expect in the United States of America. A surprise raid was made on a judgment debtor’s home to enforce an order of execution on property of the debtor. The order was ostensibly for the purpose of obtaining property of value to be seized, but was obviously focused instead on all means for the debtor to express ideas. The debtor was required to sit on his couch while flak-jacketed U.S. Marshals, along with agents of advocates for moral and political positions that the debtor despised, plus persons with unknown identities and purposes, went through and seized the books and papers, and computers and cameras, of the debtor and his family. The only exception was for children’s books and Bibles. The interior of the home was videotaped. The debtor was not allowed to leave the couch, to go outside, or to call his lawyer, although eventually a marshal called the debtor’s lawyer.
This kind of home attack on the ability to convey ideas should not happen in our Republic. It is true that the debtor’s ideas—that it is moral to take violent, illegal action to stop abortions—are repugnant. But it is contrary to our fundamental norms to permit government-sanctioned attacks on the purveyance of ideas, even when those ideas are repugnant.
In ruling on the Brays' civil suit against Planned Parenthood and the Marshals, the unanimous three-judge panel (which included Judge Bernice Donald, an Obama appointee) found that the presence of Planned Parenthood representatives wandering around the house and videotaping violated the Fourth Amendment, and undermined any claims by the Marshals that there was a genuine security threat presented by the Brays and their children to justify such a heavy-handed raid:
No countervailing governmental interest justified the four-hour detention of Michael Bray. For one thing, the raid presented none of the operational and safety concerns that may justify seizing the occupants of a home during the execution of a criminal warrant….Allowing Michael Bray to leave his home or to use the telephone would not have threatened the completion of the search. Nor would an unrestrained Michael Bray have presented a safety concern. To the contrary, the marshals’ own actions belie that argument. Had the marshals believed that not restraining Michael Bray risked violence, they would not likely have permitted numerous representatives of PPCW to join in a surprise raid of his home.
Inviting multiple representatives from PPCW to join the search did more than undermine the argument that the marshals believed Michael Bray to be a safety threat. In addition, the action violated the Fourth Amendment because it exceeded the writ, which authorized only “a representative from [PPCW]” to “be present to assist in the identification of property subject to seizure.”… Contrary to this clear instruction, the marshals permitted not one, but “numerous” representatives of the organization to join the raid…
Adding further support to the conclusion that the marshals’ actions violated the Constitution, the presence of multiple unauthorized representatives of PPCW served no valid purpose under the writ. Although the Fourth Amendment does not require that all conduct by an officer within a home be expressly authorized by a court order, it does demand that actions relate to the lawful objectives of the order…PPCW had no articulated expertise in satisfying the ostensible purpose of the writ, identifying valuable goods to satisfy a monetary judgment.
Moreover, because the presence of additional representatives of PPCW was not authorized, and because the writ made no provision for the use of a camera, it was a violation of the Fourth Amendment to permit the organization to film the home. A person who is not lawfully present in a home may violate the Constitution by engaging in warrantless filming of the area. The Supreme Court made clear…that the right to be present in a home does not necessarily entitle police to bring photographers with them. In this case, the unauthorized filming of the Brays’ home was particularly unreasonable because the raid was unannounced and the filming occurred within the home itself. Moreover, because of the location and nature of the filming, the use of the camera posed a heightened risk of intimidating the family and capturing its intimate, unguarded moments.
As it turned out, because the Brays had settled with Planned Parenthood and certain other defendants, the court ended up dismissing the remaining claims against the Marshals, finding that while they had participated in an unconstitutional raid, they were immune from civil suit under the doctrine of "qualified immunity" because they had been carrying out a valid court order and may not have realized that they were going far enough afield for a clear constitutional violation (qualified immunity law requires that law enforcement officials can be sued only when they clearly and obviously knew they were violating a Constitutional right; the doctrine protects cops from second-guessing by judges after the fact).
At the end of the day, the Brays may not be worthy of much sympathy, but the Constitutional rights of unpopular citizens can matter to the rest of us, especially when the people trampling on those rights come from an organization like Planned Parenthood that is all too accustomed to getting its way in the legal system regardless of who gets hurt (just ask a Pennsylvania state legislator who is the cousin of one of Kermit Gosnell's victims and now faces Planned Parenthood's wrath). The Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches of the home was put in the Constitution to protect our privacy. It is ironic, given its rhetoric, that Planned Parenthood does not respect that right.