Langford v. Superior Court

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Citation729 P.2d 822,233 Cal.Rptr. 387,43 Cal.3d 21
Decision Date02 January 1987
Parties, 729 P.2d 822, 55 USLW 2422 Doris LANGFORD et al., Petitioners, v. The SUPERIOR COURT of Los Angeles County, Respondent. Daryl GATES, as Chief of Police, etc., et al., Real Parties in Interest. L.A. 32105.

Joan Howarth, Pete R. Navarro, Mark D. Rosenbaum and Paul Hoffman, Los Angeles, for petitioners.

No appearance for Respondent.

James K. Hahn, City Atty., Lewis N. Unger, Asst. City Atty., Donna B. Weisz and Jack L. Brown, Deputy City Attys., Los Angeles, for real parties in interest.

MOSK, Justice.

We granted review in this case to determine whether the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) should be enjoined from using a motorized battering ram and pyrotechnic explosive devices known as "flashbangs" to execute searches of so-called "rock houses," which are specially fortified residential dwellings where crystallized "rock" cocaine is made and sold. As will appear, we are persuaded that the unregulated use of the motorized battering ram, but not the flashbangs, poses a significant and unusual threat to property and public safety that may, unless subject to judicial scrutiny, contravene the proscription against unreasonable searches contained in the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 13, of the California Constitution.

In light of the deliberate, often prolonged, planning that the LAPD undertakes before it deploys the device, prior judicial review of its proposed use of the ram against suspected rock houses is unlikely to obstruct effective law enforcement. Therefore we conclude that a writ of mandate should issue directing the trial court to enjoin deployment of the ram to execute search or arrest warrants unless a magistrate authorizes its use, and unless exigent circumstances arise at the time of entry. On the other hand, since we are not convinced that the flashbangs are inherently dangerous, we rely on the discretion of law enforcement agencies to determine when and under what circumstances they are to be used.

Petitioners (hereinafter plaintiffs) are taxpayers and individuals who occupied a suburban Los Angeles residence on the evening of February 6, 1985, when it was forcibly entered by LAPD officers using a motorized battering ram to penetrate a wall of the house and flashbangs to divert and disarm its occupants. The police were executing a search warrant issued several days earlier after an informant made a controlled purchase of rock cocaine through a metal slot in the front door.

The LAPD had engaged the assistance of Special Weapons and Tactics Team members to break into the house, after concluding that iron bars over its windows and an electronically controlled locked "cage" at the front entrance precluded rapid entry by less dramatic means. The police chief invited the news media to witness the first use of the "V-100," an armored personnel carrier equipped with a battering ram. In front of television cameras and without prior warning to the occupants--other than a bystander's shouts of "Police!"--the officers drove the ram through the exterior wall of the house and into a family room; simultaneously, police detonated flashbangs in the room and entered in full force. As it turned out, the house was occupied by two unarmed women and their three young children; the officers recovered no weapons and only trace amounts of cocaine along with alleged drug paraphernalia.

Plaintiffs brought an action for damages and declaratory and injunctive relief on federal and state grounds, contending that the LAPD's practice of using the motorized battering ram and flashbangs against residences constitutes inherently excessive force which is unreasonable per se under the Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, and article I, sections 1, 7, 13, and 15 of the California Constitution. Real parties in interest (hereinafter defendants) removed the action to federal court, which remanded to state courts all claims with the exception of a damage action under a federal civil rights statute. By then--in May 1985--the LAPD had used the devices in a total of four searches of suspected rock houses.

Plaintiffs applied for a preliminary injunction, urging that the ram and flashbangs be prohibited in searches of occupied dwellings. At the hearing, however, they stipulated that they did not seek to restrict LAPD deployment of either device "if such use reasonably appears necessary to stop an ongoing threat of immediate serious injury or death" such as in a terrorist or hostage scenario.

Defendants responded that the use of the devices was entirely justified by the unique problems for law enforcement posed by the fortress-like rock houses proliferating in residential areas. Rock houses are typically equipped with steel bars on exterior windows and are entered by way of multiple steel doors: a mesh entry door provides access to a barred "cage," and a second steel-reinforced door may lead from there to the interior of the house or to a third door that is the actual front door. Officers can usually only surmise the extent of interior hardware, which may include steel bars and mesh over windows on the inside of the house, multiple deadbolts on interior and exterior doors, and thick boards bolted across entries. Even approaching such operations may be dangerous to law enforcement officers as rock houses may monitor outside activity by means of cameras and other electronic surveillance devices.

Defendants averred that the fortifications of the house in question appeared more elaborate than those installed on other houses in the neighborhood to avert burglaries--although they conceded their preliminary investigation was hampered because their informant could not see into the interior of the house. The informant's purchase of cocaine confirmed LAPD suspicions that it was a rock house: the informant was "buzzed" into the front cage, the exterior door of which was locked after entry, he exchanged cash for rock cocaine through the door slot, and he was released after being "buzzed" out. Furthermore, raids against two similarly fortified houses owned by the same individual suspected of owning the target house had yielded cocaine and weapons, and neither had contained clothing or furnishings indicating the presence of regular occupants.

On the basis of the 2 previous raids and of the statistically high incidence of weapons in rock houses generally--between October 1984 and February 1985, police seized 207 guns in 269 operations against such houses--the LAPD anticipated armed resistance. Moreover, because of the elaborate ironworks of the exterior entrances, they concluded it would be impossible to enter by conventional methods before evidence was destroyed.

Defendants went on to describe the engines of war that are the subject of the present action. Each V-100 armored personnel carrier is mounted with a 14-foot horizontal steel pole capped with a rectangular steel plate. Driven at approximately five miles an hour against the exterior wall of a building and then withdrawn, it creates a hole large enough for several officers to enter simultaneously. Although approved by the department for use in nine raids, the motorized rams have actually been deployed only four times, with no physical injuries to persons or major damage to buildings, either stucco or brick. Plaintiffs contended this apparent safety record is misleading, warning that according to their experts structural damage could be catastrophic, resulting in serious injuries through flying debris, collapsed ceilings, and even explosion and fire.

Defendants asserted that flashbangs have proved particularly effective in safely disarming dangerous individuals, by temporarily blinding them with a brilliant flash of light and confusing them with artillery-like sounds. Since they were introduced into the police arsenal in 1982, flashbangs have been approved by the department for use 38 times, on 25 occasions in 1985 alone. Defendants introduced expert testimony showing that flashbangs are designed exclusively to produce dramatic pyrotechnics, not to injure, and should cause only minor skin burns at worst. This has proved true, with a single tragic exception: a woman was killed in December 1984 when a flashbang exploded between her back and a wall. The LAPD accounts the death a "freak" accident, but has taken measures to preclude a similar mishap by reducing by half the explosive power of the device and requiring that officers detonate them only after they have seen fully into a target area. No other injuries have been reported.

Defendants maintained that although dangerous, the devices do not constitute deadlier force than many of the conventional tools--including tear gas, hand-held battering devices, and explosives applied directly to deadbolts--long used for forcible entry. They argued that a blanket prohibition against a particular device, subject to magistrate approval, is without precedent. Moreover, such review would duplicate the careful prior screening already conducted by police administrative panels, which approve deployment only when either device is the safest means of accomplishing a speedy forced entry. Finally, they insisted that injunctive relief is unavailable: courts may review the LAPD's use of any particular weaponry only retrospectively, on a case-by-case basis.

The trial court agreed with defendants. It denied plaintiffs' motion for injunctive relief concluding that although they might eventually establish that the motorized battering rams and flashbangs are unreasonable per se, they had submitted insufficient data to demonstrate a current policy of misuse by the LAPD. It observed that short of banning the devices outright, it lacked authority to regulate or condition their use except by requiring prior judicial authorization for nighttime...

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