Is My Home My Castle?

Article excerpt

A decade before the American Revolution, a member of the English Parliament spoke on English citizens' right of privacy in their home: "The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail--its roof may shake--the wind may enter--the storm may enter--the rain may enter--but the king of England cannot."

Such stark sentiments were dearly held by the American colonists, who bridled at the general "writs of assistance" that allowed the king's soldiers to enter any house and seize any property and required all citizens to assist in the seizure. Few provisions of the Bill of Rights grow so directly out of the colonists' experience with unrestrained governmental power as did the Fourth Amendment's assurance against unreasonable searches and seizures of one's person, home, and property.

For five centuries the English (and hence American) law held that before an officer could break in to and enter a dwelling, he must give notice to the occupants (knock and announce) and be refused entry by them. Only then could the officer, with a valid warrant, break into and enter the property. But recently, a few narrow "no knock" exceptions have been recognized by Congress and the Supreme Court. United States v. Ramirez is such a "no knock" case.

In 1994, a federal prisoner named Shelby, considered highly dangerous, was being transported from jail in Portland, Oregon, to court to testify. En route, Shelby, facing a 20-year sentence and nicknamed "Houdini," slipped out of his handcuffs, violently overwhelmed the deputy sheriff escort, and escaped. The authorities immediately issued a press release warning the public about the escape of this dangerous prisoner and requested the public's help in locating him.

The next day a "reliable source" said that he had seen a man he believed to be Shelby at a home in Portland. Two federal agents checked out the tip and from afar saw a man wearing a blue jumpsuit in the backyard; they both concluded it was Shelby. At 6:15 the next morning, a 45-member police SWAT team raided the home. They announced over a loudspeaker that they had a search warrant, but without waiting for any response from inside, one officer smashed a window of the garage and began waving a gun.

Inside the house, the owner, Hernan Ramirez, was asleep with his wife and three-year-old child. Ramirez awoke to the sound of breaking glass and thought that burglars were breaking into his home. Fearing for the safety of his family and unaware that it was the police, Ramirez grabbed a pistol and fired at the garage. The SWAT team returned a volley of gunfire and then stormed the home. Ramirez, seeing that it was the police, threw himself on the floor in a "frightened state."

The police then arrested Ramirez--even though Shelby was nowhere to be found. At 6:35 A.M., Ramirez and his wife were handcuffed, and they and their daughter were taken away by police in front of all the neighbors. Then the plot thickened. While holding the family, the police discovered that they hadn't captured Shelby but rather had arrested someone else--an innocent home owner. But, the police also discovered that Ramirez was a long-ago convicted felon and thus was not allowed to possess a handgun. …