Cat Scratch Leads to Feverish Entry and Lawsuit

Barton v. Martin, 2020 (6th Cir. 2020)

Dwain Barton was fixing his back door when his wife called out to him, alarmed that a cat was clawing Barton’s daughter in the yard. Barton grabbed a BB gun and fired at a trampoline’s legs, intending to make noise and frighten the  large cat scratching at his daughter. Barton yelled to his neighbor, Jill Porter, and said, “The next cat that I see in my yard will be a dead one.” Barton had previously complained to animal control that Porter fed stray cats. Barton went back to fixing the door.

Porter called the police and falsely reported Barton was shooting cats. She said Barton told her, “Your grey cat just peed on my furniture and he got shot in the head.” Porter said she did not see an injured cat and said the cat could not be hers.

An animal control officer knocked on Barton’s door. Barton spoke to the animal control officer through the screen door. Barton asked whether he was suspected of committing a crime and the animal control officer told him he was not. Barton refused to leave his house or provide identification. He denied shooting at a cat and told the animal control officer he had shot only at a trampoline pole with a BB gun to scare the cat away. The animal control officer did not see a weapon and did not see an injured cat.

The animal control officer called for police assistance, broadcasting that Barton was not giving him information and had admitted to shooting animals. A short time later, four patrol cars, each with two officers, arrived. The officers armed themselves with rifles and surrounded the house. The animal control officer again asked for identification and Barton passed his identification through the door to his mother-in-law on the front porch. She gave the identification to an officer.

Officer Vann, concerned Barton might draw a weapon, quickly opened the screen door and entered the house. He threw Barton against a kitchen counter and pulled Barton’s arm into a position for handcuffing. Barton did not resist, according to Vann, but said he had a pre-existing shoulder injury. Nonetheless, Vann handcuffed Barton’s arms behind his back.

Barton was taken to the police station where one arm was handcuffed to a wall, about three feet above his head, and he was stripped naked for a search. He was released on bond shortly thereafter. Barton sued, claiming illegal entry into his home, unreasonable arrest and prosecution without probable cause, and excessive force, as well as First Amendment retaliation. A trial court granted qualified immunity to the officers on several claims and Barton appealed.

It is important to remember judicial decisions reviewing a trial court ruling on qualified immunity must always consider the contested facts in the light most favorable to the party appealing the lower court ruling.

Pause for a moment and consider the standard for qualified immunity described in the case above. Now consider the home is the most protected place under Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. It is black letter law an officer may not enter a home absent a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement (Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740 (1984)). United States v. U.S. District Court (407 U.S. 297 (1972)) states “Indeed, warrantless entry of one’s home is the ‘chief evil’ against which the Fourth Amendment is designed to guard.” Who do you think wins? What would you have done in response to the animal control officer’s plea for help when Barton refused to come out of the house and provide information?

The appellate court reversed the trial court. The court held a reasonable jury could find the officers entered illegally, wrongfully arrested Barton and used excessive force against him. First, the court held the right to be free from warrantless entry into a home was clearly established at the time Vann entered without a warrant (or some warrant clause exception). Few legal principles are more certain than the Fourth Amendment prohibition on warrantless entry into a home, as stated in Ewolski v. City of Brunswick (287 F.3d 492 (6th Cir. 2002)): “A police officer’s entry into a home without a warrant is presumptively unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.”

The officers argued the possibility there could have been weapons inside Barton’s home created an exigency justifying warrantless entry. The court sharply disagreed, citing a long line of cases holding a report of an armed suspect inside his home does not justify warrantless entry. The only possible threat made was that Barton might kill the next cat he saw in his yard attacking his children, which hardly constituted an immediate threat and an exigency.

Second, the court held Barton was arrested without probable cause. The only information suggesting Barton may have committed animal cruelty was the false claim from Porter. Porter did not claim to be an eyewitness, and no one saw any evidence a cat had been injured. The court stated, “A phone call reporting criminal activity, without any corroborating information, does not provide probable cause for an arrest” and thus held “Vann’s conduct also violated clearly established law” by arresting Barton without probable cause.

Third, the court agreed the evidence raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Vann’s use of force was reasonable. To determine whether an officer used excessive force, the court applies an objective reasonableness standard. The court must balance the harm or injury to the individual against the government interests in seizing the individual. Here, Vann was arresting a non-threatening person, who Vann acknowledged did not resist, for a very minor crime. Vann admitted he did not perceive a threat from Barton because Barton did not have “anything in his hands” and was not “in control of any type of a weapon.” The court held a “reasonable jury could find that by the time Vann ‘threw up against the counter like a linebacker,’ Vann knew, or should have known, that Barton was not in control of any weapon and was not attempting to evade arrest or flee.”

It is important to remember judicial decisions reviewing a trial court ruling on qualified immunity must always consider the contested facts in the light most favorable to the party appealing the lower court ruling. A jury might later disagree with evidence cited as factual. That said, there are several takeaways from this decision. Admitting some people are passionate about protecting stray cats, could the officers have probed more for information from the animal control officer (who, one hopes, is someone concerned with cat welfare) and the dishonest neighbor? Could the officers have paused to ask about injuries to Barton’s daughter? Could the presence of a wise sergeant helped officers to pause and consider whether there was probable cause to arrest Barton? Even if a cat had been shot with a BB gun, could a citation or summons been effective to achieve justice for the stray cat? How might a jury regard a strip search of an alleged cat shooter while chained with an outstretched arm?

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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