Begging for Trouble With Police Assistance

A tenant is indigant because the police stood by while her landlord had people enter her home without her permission. Police officers risk being blamed for incidents occuring during civil assists or standbys.
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  MIAMI MIRROR –      TRUE REFLECTIONS    Page 1  of 8   UK Police stand by to assist with a court ordered eviction BEGGING FOR TROUBLE WITH POLICE ASSISTANCE Some kinds of Civil Assists or Standbys are not worth the trouble January 4, 2014 By David Arthur Walters MIAMI MIRROR MIAMI BEACH — Other than domestic disputes between spouses, one of the most disturbed civil relationships a law enforcement officer may encounter is that between landlord and tenants. A county sheriff and his deputies or other “constitutional” officers  may be attacked by a tenant or occupant during the process of assisting a landlord with an eviction ordered by the court. And a regular police officer may be harmed when standing by to keep the peace in case something untoward occurs during a landlord’s  entry into demised premises for emergencies or for regular maintenance or inspection. Another danger the police officer faces as a result of “standbys” or “civil assists”  in landlord/tenant issues, when she does not merely standby to keep the peace in the event of criminal behavior but takes action to assist the landlord, is a lawsuit for civil trespass for helping the landlord with unlawful entry and the violation of the tenant’s civil rights, and perhaps even a charge for criminal trespass. A police officer may enjoy sovereign immunity from personal liability for unintentional negligence, but she may be liable when she violates a person’s civil  MIAMI MIRROR –      TRUE REFLECTIONS    Page 2  of 8   and constitutional rights. As for the landlord, he could in theory be charged with criminal trespass and harassment, and might be sued for civil trespass, invasion of privacy, and breach of implied covenant for quiet enjoyment. After we consider below a September 2013 civil assist or standby that occurred in the City Miami Beach without a court order, we may conclude that, in the absence of a court order, police officers should not standby or assist landlords who want to enter demised premises in non-emergencies even though it is well within a police department’s discretion  to so as a courtesy. A civil assist is one in which a police officer merely monitors a scene in order to insure that the peace is kept. Where a civil assist is rendered, the officer's sole function is to stand by in the event violence or similar trouble ensues. It is not the police officer's function to help anyone, for example, to enter or take possession of property, to take custody of a child, to evict persons, et cetera, which is normally within the purview of the sheriff or other constitutional officer and not police officers. A police department for a city the size of Miami Beach might make hundreds of civil assists for all sorts of events during a year, many of them to standby while property is being recovered or repossessed pursuant to civil court judgments. For example, the Plantation, Florida, police department reported 666 civil assists in 2012, as compared to 6,827 service calls for alarm checks, 5,480 for suspicious persons, 5,120 to check premises, 1,303 domestic violence calls, and, at the lower end, 55 shooting calls, 9 prowler calls, 5 murder calls, and 1 service call each for gambling and armed suicide. In 2013, a tenant who happens to be a real estate professional complained to the Internal Affairs of the Miami Beach Police Department that two police officers had illegally assisted her landlady, a politically connected member of the community, with the unlawful entry of her home. She said she was out of town at the time. Alarms that she had installed in the unit went off and the police were notified of same, but they were false alarms. She said she expressly denied her landlady permission to enter the home until her planned return three days later because she feared for the safety of her elderly mother and her dogs inside the home. However, the landlady sent over a realtor, a locksmith, and a dog handler, and the home was entered with two police officers standing by. The locksmith was needed because the tenant had changed the lock, presumably without permission because how would the landlady have known to send a locksmith unless she had tried to enter the premises without permission on a previous occasion? The tenant said that she attempted to report what she perceived to be a criminal entry when she returned to town, but officers at meeting held at the police station denied that any crime had been committed, denied that the police officers had entered the home, and refused to make a report of the incident at that meeting. She said a lease authorizing immediate entries  MIAMI MIRROR –      TRUE REFLECTIONS    Page 3  of 8   was produced bearing her forged signature thereon, but the police would not give her a copy of the document. A police report was eventually written, she said, but it did not give her side of the story. She claimed to have an audio/video confession of the dog handler confirming that he was asked to restrain the dogs, and that the police officers had entered the home, but she refused to produce the evidence to Internal Affairs, which raised the question as to whether she really had a recording or whether she was afraid to produce it because she had violated the wiretap law. She made a futile attempt to get a state attorney to press charges. Her dispute with the landlady continued in court with eviction proceedings. According to the police department, the court has authorized another, later entry to show the property. She contacted me to publicly air her complaints against the police department. I referred her to professional muckrakers and informed her that I do not cover police misconduct complaints because I am biased in favor of police forces yet was nevertheless interested in the improvement of police processes. I only had one side of the story, the tena nt’s, but I personally believed that the police officers had not intentionally done anything wrong. If the officers had entered the premises, that would be problematic even if invited in by the landlady or her agent unless they were checking for burglars; and maybe the mother was not present because she had been stuffed in the closet. Perhaps mistakes were made, and maybe they tried to cover when they saw the scorned tenant coming at them like hell on wheels, but who knows? There was no report written at the scene of the incident at the time, and memories are especially faulty when a person is accused of misconduct after the fact. Indeed, one of my pet peeves about police processes is the unwillingness of officers to write reports when an officer believes no crime has been committed. I am keen on reporting everything. Anyway, no physical damages were done in this case, and I opined that it would be best for the infuriated tenant to just move on. I certainly sympathized with her feelings, especially since she was familiar with abuses of authority by a ruthless dictator, but I stated that it was foolish for her to waste time trying to press criminal charges against cops and the landlady when her attorney should be filing complaints for civil trespass against her premises and chattels (her dogs), and demanding damages for intentional and/or negligent infliction of emotional distress. Indeed, police officers and the state attorney had insisted all along that it was a civil, not a criminal matter. What good would a little more bad publicity for the police department do her?  MIAMI MIRROR –      TRUE REFLECTIONS    Page 4  of 8   Why bother with a wrist-slap at most when thousands of dollars of salve could be applied to her wounded dignity? With that incident in mind, it is not surprising that some jurisdictions provide special training and even complete handbooks on the subject to their police officers. For example, the State of Connecticut provides its officers with a 33-page Landlord/Tenant Disputes, Police Training Manual   (2009) with separate chapters on Lockouts and Self-help Evictions, Unlawful Entry, No Heat and Termination of Services, and Criminal Damage to a Landlord’ s Property, all in the context of state Landlord/Tenant law, which is relatively uniform in most states. In its discussion of Unlawful Entry, the Manual stresses the importance of the landlord obtaining the tenant’s consent for non -emergency entries. That consent may not be unreasonably withheld, and the landlord may obtain a court order if it is. The question is posed, “May I enter the apartment  with the landlord to make sure that there are no problems? - You are allowed to be present for any legitimate police purpose, but do not allow the landlord to use your authority as a police officer to enable the landlord to enter the apartment unlawfully. Make a point of knowing what the law is, or check with your shift supervisor or the housing prosecutor. As with police assistance in an illegal lockout, you must determine whether the entry is legal. If it is not, your job is to prevent the entry, not to facilitate it and thereby permit the commission of a crime.”  The highly regarded organization, Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, published an 11- page article on the subject in the June 2009 edition of the ‘AELE Monthly Law Journal. “ The relationship between landlords and tenants is often a volatile one, ” states the Introduction, “ with disputes arising over a wide variety of issues, including money, the condition of the premises (and whose fault any defects are), the presence of pets (authorized or not), landlord entry into the rented premises, noise, the number of persons living in the apartment, lead paint, safety hazards, crime and drug or gang activity on and near the premises, and of course, eviction and tenant lockouts, both legal and illegal. On occasion, police officers are summoned to a rented premises by either a landlord (or their agent) or a tenant (or both). ”   “It is not the job of an officer to resolve landlord tenant dispute,” we are forewarned. “Whether the rent was fully paid, or whether the landlord broke a promise to paint the living room, are civil disputes, and the parties can be reminded that there are courts to resolve those disputes. Officers can, of course, stand by while landlord-tenant disputes are going on, but should not take part on either side. They may, of course, take appropriate action if an offense occurs.”  
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