ATLANTA (AP) — The city of Atlanta had a policy of conducting unlawful, warrantless searches of commercial properties, a federal judge ruled this week in a case brought after officers searched a motorcycle club's meeting space.
U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell issued the ruling Tuesday in a civil rights lawsuit filed by Devon Brown after city officers entered and searched a space Brown had rented in a commercial building to use as a private clubhouse for his motorcycle club.
Pannell said the city violated Brown's Fourth Amendment right of protection against unreasonable search and seizure and that the amount of damages owed to Brown will be determined by a jury at trial.
The lawsuit names the city, six police officers, a buildings department inspector and two senior investigators with the city solicitor's office.
The city is reviewing the court's order and considering the appropriate course of action, spokeswoman Jenna Garland said in an email Friday.
Pannell wrote in his order that Brown can seek punitive damages, finding that "there is sufficient evidence in the record for a reasonable jury to conclude that Individual Defendants' actions exhibited callous or reckless indifference to Brown's federal rights."
Brown, a veteran Fulton County sheriff's deputy, and other members of the Dirty South Slab Riders motorcycle club were celebrating a bachelor party on Feb. 8, 2014, in the space Brown had rented, the lawsuit says. There were signs outside that said "No Trespassing" and "Private Club," and the windows were blacked out so people outside couldn't see inside.
There was no food or alcohol for sale, but members had brought their own food and drinks to share.
Police and compliance officers had search and arrest warrants to go into a business where officers said they had witnessed misconduct, including alcohol sales to minors, Pannell's order says. But that business was closed, so they didn't do that inspection.
A police sergeant recalled hearing about other businesses in the area that were operating outside legal business hours and doing other illegal things and decided to "attack" some of those areas, the judge wrote.
Despite the signs outside the motorcycle club location, the officers believed it was a commercial property open for business and entered the unlocked door without knocking after noting cars in the parking lot and hearing loud music, the judge wrote.
They didn't have a search warrant and began a compliance check based on their observations, the order says.
They asked Brown, who had identified himself as the club's president, for business and alcohol licenses, and after he said he didn't have either and didn't think he needed them, the officers arrested him.
A municipal court judge found him guilty of violations of the city code: failure to obtain a business license and failure to comply with liquor licensing provisions. A Fulton County Superior Court judge overturned that ruling on appeal, finding that the club was not a business or bottle house.
In his order, Pannell cited deposition testimony from Sgt. Bryant Burns, one of the officers named in the lawsuit, and another police detective who wasn't involved in the search saying it was common practice to enter an establishment without a warrant to perform compliance checks.
"We often find that a lot, more often than not, we'll sometimes devote our time to just checking business licenses," Burns testified. "So there may be a building that has multiple suites in it, so we'll go from suite to suite, checking on that business license."
Pannell found that "Burns' testimony tends to show that the city had a policy or custom of conducting unlawful, warrantless searches of commercial properties."