ACLU Settles Challenge to Illegal Police Search Of Warwick Family's Home

August 21, 2000 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today announced the favorable settlement of a 1999 lawsuit challenging the violation of a family’s Fourth Amendment rights when Warwick police broke into their house without a warrant late one night to arrest their 20-year-old son for alleged underage drinking.

ACLU volunteer attorney Merlyn O’Keefe, who filed the case on behalf of Gerald and Carol Theberge and their son Michael, commended the city for resolving the case without a trial, and the police for revising their departmental procedures to meet constitutional standards.

In settling the case, the police department has adopted a new policy that explicitly prohibits similar warrantless entries where there is no threat to the life or safety of the public, the police or the suspect. In addition, the city agreed to pay the Theberges $11,000 in damages and $5,000 in attorneys fees.

Possession of alcohol by a minor, the “crime” which prompted the police to break into the Theberge house without a warrant, is not even a petty misdemeanor, but instead only a “violation” which carries no more than a $500 fine.

According to the ACLU lawsuit, filed last November, the incident began after police officer Paul Wells saw Michael, who was 20 years old at the time and whom Wells knew, at a local bar holding what looked like beer. When Michael saw Wells, he left the bar. The officer then followed Michael to his home and had other officers join him there.

After banging on the back door of the house, where Wells had seen Michael enter, and getting no answer, officers broke into the home. Michael’s parents, hearing the noise, ran into the back room and demanded to see a warrant.

The father claims police grabbed him and banged him against the wall. The officers then searched the premises and arrested Michael for underage drinking and for obstructing a police officer during the arrest.

“The constitutional requirement that police obtain a warrant from a neutral magistrate before entering a person’s house is an extremely important bulwark against police overzealousness,” said Steven Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. “The fear experienced by the Theberges family that night is precisely what the Fourth Amendment was designed to prevent.”

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