The D.C. Court of Appeals yesterday upheld a lower court ruling that two D.C. police officers were personally liable for $2,700 in damages to a Southeast Washington couple who had accused the officers of ransacking its apartment during a drug raid and taking property not listed on a search warrant.
The man, Noble A. Whitehead, was convicted on drug charges stemming from the raid and served time in prison, according to his attorney. But in a separate civil suit, Whitehead and Jo Ann Haltiwanger were awarded the damages, which included $2,100 in punitive damages, against the officers.
The officers claimed they were acting in good faith and merely were following orders in executing a search warrant eight years ago at Whitehead's Benning Road apartment in Benning Heights where heroin and some drug-related paraphernalia were seized.
But the officers also took television sets, a stereo, camera equipment and a tape recorder, all of which they suspected had been acquired through drug transactions. However, only the drugs and drug paraphernalia -- not the other property -- were listed on the warrant.
Chief Judge Theodore R. Newman Jr., writing for the majority in the 2-to-1 decision, said the Constitution requires that search warrants list any item that the police intend to seize, and that certain exceptions established by the courts did not apply in this case.
Associate Judge Stanley S. Harris dissented, charging that Newman's ruling could produce a string of lawsuits against officers and might have a "devastating impact on the ability -- and even the willingness of officers -- to function effectively."
"If this case were a sports event," Harris wrote, "the lead paragraph describing it might be read as follows: 'The criminal element today scored a startling victory over a law enforcment team.' " Harris is the son of former Washington Senators manager Stanley (Bucky) Harris.
The police claimed that even if the seizure was not lawful, they merely were following the orders of a police superior, acted in good faith and did not personally benefit from the seizure of the property, which was turned over to the police property department. The property has not been returned.
However, Newman said that just because the officers were under orders of a superior, they were not absolved of responsibility. The officers' reckless behavior, he said, was sufficient evidence to justify the punitive damage award against them.
"The police conduct in this case was outrageous," said Whitehead's attorney, John G. Gill. "They will think a lot more about violating someone's rights if they think they have some of their own money on the line."
The officers, Michael K. Smith and Steven E. Granville, could not be reached for comment yesterday. The D.C. Corporation Counsel's Office, which handled their defense, declined to comment and it was unclear whether the city would pay the damages assessed against the officers.
According to the majority opinion, Smith and Granville searched Whitehead's apartment in a "reckless and destructive manner." In the kitchen, the officers "dumped trash, as well as flour, coffee, cereal, sugar and other foodstuffs on the stove and floor. In the bedroom, as the officers inspected clothes in the closet and dressers, they dropped the clothes to the floor and walked on them. They emptied bottles of perfume and, after searching under the rug, left it upside down.
"In the living room the police, having first probed the couch and having found no evidence of drugs, ripped apart its frame and upholstery. Record jackets were opened; the records were left scattered on the floor, where officers walked on and broke some of them," the opinion said.
Haltiwanger testified that when she protested the manner of the search, one officer pushed and struck her. Whitehead and Haltiwanger testified that the various pieces of property were either gifts or purchases. In one case, a receipt was produced for a movie projector that the police had seized.
The search warrant had listed "heroin, capsules, envelopes, syringes . . . and any other evidence of illegal possession . . . ," according to the opinion. The officers, who used a battering ram to force open the apartment door, found heroin, other drug paraphernalia and a stolen gun.
Whitehead was convicted of possession of narcotics with intent to distribute and of receiving stolen property the revolver , according to the majority opinion, which was joined by Judge Catherine B. Kelly.