Clinic Victory in U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (Corrigan v. District of Columbia)

On November 8, 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decided Corrigan v. District of Columbia in favor of Appellant Matthew Corrigan, a client of the William & Mary Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic.  The opinion is available here.

Corrigan, an Iraq war veteran, suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 2010, he mistakenly called the National Suicide Hotline, thinking it was an emotional support hotline for veterans. In response to the hotline operator’s questions, Corrigan explained that he had served in the military and that he owned guns, but that he was not suicidal, did not intend to harm himself or others, and his guns were safely stored. After the call ended, however, the hotline operator notified 911 and a team of police officers was dispatched to Corrigan’s apartment to respond to an “attempted suicide.” 

After Corrigan peacefully submitted to police custody, officers entered his apartment without a warrant or consent and performed a sweep. The officers found no people or dangerous or illegal items in the apartment.  Five hours later––well after the scene had been secured and Corrigan had been taken to a local veterans hospital––the police again searched his home without consent or a warrant, purportedly to look for explosive devices.  During this second search, officers dumped out drawers, tore open locked containers, and left Corrigan’s home in disarray.

The district court granted summary judgment to the officers and the District of Columbia after ruling that the officers did not violate Corrigan’s constitutional rights and that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. The D.C. Circuit reversed, holding that the officers’ second search violated Corrigan’s rights under the Fourth Amendment. The court found the fact that Corrigan had received improvised explosive device (IED) training during his military service insufficient to support the officers’ uncorroborated belief that he had explosives in his home. Noting that “countless veterans who have risked their lives for this country” also received IED training and suffer from PTSD, the court found that the officers’ second warrantless search was based on only “runaway speculation.” 

Importantly, the D.C. Circuit also held that clearly established law precluded the officers’ unconstitutional second search of Corrigan’s home. The court found that the officers violated Corrigan’s clearly established Fourth Amendment rights by conducting a warrantless search of his home because no reasonable officer could have believed exigent circumstances justified that search. 

Elizabeth Rademacher J.D. ’16, argued the case with the support of Melanie Lazor J.D. ’16. Rademacher and Jacob Derr J.D. ’16, were primarily responsible for the briefing. Students in the Clinic practice under the supervision of Adjunct Professor Tillman J. Breckenridge, a partner at Bailey & Glasser LLP and director of the Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic.

According to the clinic, the D.C. Circuit’s decision will help ensure that veterans like Corrigan are protected against warrantless, unreasonable searches of their homes. It also strengthens Fourth Amendment protections afforded to the home and represents a significant civil rights victory.

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