ST. LOUIS COUNTY — Police officers with St. Louis County looking for someone who skipped out on cab fare should have left a couple’s home rather than search it with guns drawn, a federal appeals court determined this week.
The opinion by a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Court of Appeals on Tuesday called the actions of county police officers a “severe, warrantless intrusion into a home.”
Anthony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU in Missouri, said in a statement that, “Armed officers entering your home in the middle of the night in the absence of any emergency was a nightmare for this family and something that is not supposed to happen in this country.”
Rothert said it was “terrifying” to learn that such searches are routine, adding, “We are relieved the home invasion by the officers did not result in injury or death in this case and hope that the county police will now agree to train their officers to know that such conduct is unacceptable.”
Rothert said the ruling meant that a lawsuit filed in 2017 will now go to trial for a jury to determine damages.
Jon Luer and Andrea Steinebach awoke about 3 a.m. on July 10, 2016, to find the armed officers in their hallway. Officers Michael Clinton and Benjamin Selz took Luer’s stepson, who was also in the house, out to let the cab driver look at him, but left after deciding he was not the suspect, the opinion says. The home was in unincorporated St. Louis County near Ballwin.
Police had been searching the area for an intoxicated man who refused to pay his cab fare when they spotted an open side door to the Luer-Steinebach’s garage. They went inside the garage after failing to rouse the couple by knocking on doors and windows and ringing the doorbell. They saw a partially opened door to the house and went inside, searching the home until they ran into a partially dressed Luer, the opinion says.
The appeals court said it was reasonable for officers to enter the garage, and they were entitled to “qualified immunity” for briefly entering the home after spotting “an open door into a home late at night, when no one had responded to their repeated knocking at the outside doors.”
But the “frightening confrontation” with Luer and Steinebach should never have happened, the court said.
“The officers had no information the suspect was armed or otherwise dangerous. They got no response from inside the Luer-Steinebach home and saw no signs of criminal activity. The cab driver reported that a petty thief had run, not that a burglar was on the prowl in a residential neighborhood. Reasonable police officers acting as community caretakers should have left the home,” the opinion says.
Editor's note: This report has been corrected to reflect that the home searched by officers was in unincorporated St. Louis County, not Ballwin.