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September 6, 2016

A homeschooled young man knew his constitutional rights.

Is Home Invasion a “Gray Area”?

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Against precedent, proper procedure, and the Fourth Amendment, a federal magistrate has recommended ruling in favor of a police officer who forcibly entered an HSLDA member’s home.

This development is the latest in a lawsuit filed by HSLDA in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York, on behalf of Timothy, LuAnn, and Joseph (Joe) Batt.

On April 17, 2012, when Joe, then 23, was at home attending to his grandfather, who suffered from dementia and other illnesses, Police Lt. Joseph Buccilli and another officer arrived at the Batt home and told Joe they wanted to conduct a welfare check on his grandfather.

After Joe respectfully refused, explaining that his grandfather had just been seen by a nurse’s aide who reported that all was well, Buccelli forced his way in.

Despite these facts, the magistrate on July 18 recommended granting summary judgment as requested by Lt. Buccilli. The officer argues that the invasion of the Batts’ home falls into a legal “gray area.”

In court papers filed on Friday, August 19, HSLDA’s litigation team lodged serious objections to the magistrate’s decision.

“The decision represents a significant break from the law,” HSLDA Staff Attorney Peter Kamakawiwoole explained. “This officer insisted that he entered the Batts’ home because another county agency asked him to do so. He had no idea why the agency wanted him to enter the home, and no reason to believe that there was an emergency inside. When the family said ‘no,’ he forced his way in. The Fourth Amendment clearly prevents government officials from forcibly entering a home under those circumstances.”

Interpreting the Facts

The magistrate’s decision relied heavily on the officer’s interpretation of the facts. But while a jury can pick and choose what testimony it believes, the magistrate is prohibited by law from dismissing the Batts’ lawsuit unless the Batts’ story falls short of a Fourth Amendment violation.

If the magistrate had followed the correct legal standard, his decision would have been vastly different.

“A judge can only dismiss this lawsuit before a jury trial if none of the evidence that favors the Batts is enough to show that the officer acted illegally,” Kamakawiwoole explained further. “What the judge did instead was to assume that the officer’s story was true, and used the facts that favored him to determine whether the officer violated the Fourth Amendment. There’s absolutely no question: a judge cannot do that.”

The Law Still Applies

The magistrate also concluded that the police officer’s entry into the Batts’ home did not fall within the strict protections of the Fourth Amendment because the officer was conducting a “welfare check.”

In our response, HSLDA informed the District Court that “no less than nine opinions of the Supreme Court, Second Circuit, and the Western District of New York put Lt. Buccilli on specific notice that even warrantless ‘welfare checks’ in the home are subject to traditional Fourth Amendment analysis.” There was no “gray area” here: “The Fourth Amendment clearly applied in April 2012, and it applied forcefully. A warrantless entry into a home is unconstitutional unless justified by a ‘clearly defined’ exigency.” The officer entered the Batts’ home without any emergency.

We do not expect a ruling before October, as each side will be permitted time to submit additional memorandum to the court.

Whatever the outcome, HSLDA intends to keep standing firm on this issue. The Fourth Amendment right of individuals to remain safe and secure in their own homes is not only a fundamental civil liberty; it complements the right of parents to direct the education of their children from the sanctuary of home.

Although this case deals with an unwarranted and non-emergency welfare check on an elderly person, the same principles apply to welfare checks on younger people. The Batts, who at the time of the incident still had children being homeschooled, decided to sue in order to stand up for the Fourth Amendment rights of all homeschooling families.

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Additional Resources

Objections of plaintiffs to the magistrate’s report.

For more background, visit HSLDA’s Batt case webpage.

For more on the Fourth Amendment, read HSLDA’s Issues Library entry on privacy.