The target of their investigation at the time was sleeping in a separate residence in the basement, an apartment the Palmas rented out that had its own outside entrance. The Palmas were upstairs where they lived when police slammed through their front door on Sept. 13, 2019.
“It was poorly thought out, poorly investigated and poorly executed,” said Joseph Caleb, an attorney for the Palmas. “As a result, this family was needlessly traumatized by the police.”
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland, seeks at least $2.5 million in damages. In addition to the Montgomery County Police Department, the litigation names as defendants the county itself, the police chief and 37 officers who took part in the case. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Hernan Palma, Lilian Palma and their daughter.
The Palmas were never accused of wrongdoing in the case against the man in the basement, according to a police incident report of the case, which stated that the raid had “caused an extreme amount of damage to the entire house.”
The lawsuit alleges that after an officer pointed his rifle at Hernan Palma’s chest, he grabbed the barrel and pushed it away. Several officers then tackled him, according to the litigation, and when he tried to sit up, he was punched in the face. The litigation also asserts that there were limited police body camera recordings of the incident. The lawsuit specifically cited the video of one officer that began after police had entered the Palmas’ home and detained the family. The video ended abruptly, less than 10 minutes later, according to the lawsuit.
The Palmas were handcuffed for 90 minutes, according to the lawsuit. They were then forced to stay in their living room for another hour as officers continued to search the home, the lawsuit alleged.
Officers did find drugs, bullets and steel-plated body armor in a bedroom of the basement apartment, according to court records. The man who had been staying there, David Zelaya, ultimately pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute synthetic hallucinogens and illegal possession of ammunition, according to court records.
Scott Peterson, a Montgomery County government spokesman, said the county could not comment on the lawsuit because of the pending litigation.
Police use of “no-knock” warrants has been controversial in recent years nationwide and in Montgomery County. After the Palma case surfaced publicly, and after the fatal shooting of 21-year-old Duncan Lemp during a different no-knock raid on March 12, 2020, members of the Montgomery County Council moved to abolish or curtail such warrants.
County police officials pushed back — helping carve out a wide range of investigations for which the warrants still could be used. In legislative testimony over the summer, Police Chief Marcus Jones said that in 40 years of serving no-knock warrants, the county SWAT team had been involved in three shootings and only one had been fatal.
“That speaks volumes to the tactics and the training that these officers go through consistently,” Jones said.
The raid at the Palma home came up during discussion of no-knock warrants on July 9, 2020, when Jones appeared before the council’s Public Safety Committee. Council member Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large) said the case, on its surface at least, might have been an abuse of no-knock warrants.
Council member Will Jawando (D-At Large) said the Palma raid had broader ramifications: “It speaks to the larger point of the trauma, even if someone isn’t killed — the trauma and the trust that is eroded in these types of situations.”
Jones said during the meeting that with litigation pending in the matter, he couldn’t discuss any details. But he indicated there are other explanations for what happened.
“There is only one side of that case that the public has heard thus far,” Jones said, saying it was unfair to use the case to criticize the broader use of no-knock warrants. “There are more facts to that case that I think would clear the air.”
According to the lawsuit, in 2019 the Palmas had began to rent their basement apartment to Zelaya’s mother, with whom they did not have much contact.
In May 2019, Montgomery County investigators were tipped off that Zelaya was selling drugs, the court records say. At the time, according to his attorney, he was a college student studying international relations and economics, according to his attorney, Chip Lipscomb.
Detectives reviewed and monitored Zelaya’s social media postings, seeing “hundreds of videos on his Snapchat account displaying his illegal activities,” police asserted in the records. One video allegedly showed Zelaya driving down a highway with a black handgun in his lap while holding what looked like a bag of cocaine. Another allegedly shows Zelaya in a car waving around an AR-15-styled rifle equipped with a large-capacity drum magazine.
Investigators placed a GPS tracker on one of Zelaya’s cars and put him under covert surveillance. They saw him coming and going — through a side-gate and into a basement stairwell — at the Palma’s home.
For years, Montgomery County police have viewed “no-knock” warrants as often the safest way to apprehend well-armed targets. The thinking: Using fast, overwhelming force against a sleeping suspect is better than pulling someone over in traffic or approaching someone in a public space and getting into shootouts.
On Sept. 12, a Montgomery investigator applied for a search and seizure warrant in the Zelaya case. Citing Zelaya’s criminal record and history of carrying firearms, the investigator stated that if officers knocked and announced their presence, the officers’ lives would be placed in serious danger. The warrant identified the Palmas as the home’s owners and stated they had not been informed of the case. A judge signed off on the no-knock warrant that covered the whole house.
The litigation filed Wednesday included brief biographical information about the Palmas. Hernan and Lilian were born in Chile, emigrated to the U.S., and became naturalized U.S. citizens in 2012. The lawsuit states that Hernan holds the rank of Firefighter III for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service. He teaches at the county’s Public Safety Training Academy — sometimes alongside county police and SWAT officers, according to the litigation.
Lilian has suffered from chronic kidney disease for years and has undergone three failed kidney transplants, including one kidney donated by Hernan, according to the lawsuit. She receives hemodialysis treatments at home five times a week, administered by Hernan through a catheter in her shoulder, the lawsuit said.
When tactical officers hit the house at 4:30 a.m., they burst through the basement door leading to the apartment and at least one door to the main level of the home where the Palmas lived.
“The Palmas were not, and never had been, suspected of any wrongdoing,” the lawsuit states. “Instead, they were the victims of an over-zealous police force that was willing to make misleading omissions to the court and jeopardize innocent life — one officer chided Hernan that he was lucky the officer had not shot him — in order to capture a suspect they had been investigating for months, and whom they had passed up repeated opportunities to arrest away from the Palmas’ house.”
When Hernan Palma was awakened, according to the complaint, he thought his home was being robbed. He ran toward his daughter’s bedroom, the complaint states.
“As Hernan hurriedly turned the corner of the hallway, he felt a long-barreled rifle push into his chest,” the lawsuit alleged. “Afraid of being killed, Hernan grabbed the barrel of the rifle and pushed it away from him. He was then immediately tackled by three or four of the police officer defendants. Hernan asked the men who they were, but the officers refused to answer.”
At one point, according to the lawsuit, an officer told him, “You should be more careful who you rent your basement to.”
The officers also handcuffed Lilian Palma and the couple’s then-13-year-old daughter, according to the complaint.
The encounter has left the girl, who was awaked by officers brandishing guns, “apprehensive about going out at night and scared to call the police if she is in trouble,” according to the lawsuit.
And even if the police wanted to raid Zelaya’s quarters in the basement, there was no need to have gone upstairs, the lawsuit asserted.
“After an extensive investigation, defendants knew or should have known that Zelaya did not live in the upstairs portion of the Palmas’ home,” the lawsuit states. “After an extensive investigation, defendants knew or should have known that the Palmas lived in the upstairs portion of the house.”