An Exception To Fourth Amendment’s “Reasonable Suspicion” Standard Allowed Deputies To Detain And Question Witnesses As To A Threatened Shooting

CATEGORY: Fire Watch, Law Enforcement Briefing Room
CLIENT TYPE: Public Safety
DATE: Aug 07, 2023

On March 5, 2018, a student received a text from Ryan Bernal. Bernal’s text indicated he intended to “shoot up the school” that day.  This information was sent to the Folsom Police Department, which then requested help from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department to locate Bernal.  Six deputies responded to the call for help.

The deputies went to Ryan’s residence and located his parents, Celia and William Bernal.  A deputy telephoned Celia, identified himself as a SCSD deputy, and informed her of Ryan’s threats.  Celia told him Ryan was at his grandmother’s house, but she refused to provide the address because she could not verify the deputy’s identity over the phone.  The deputies then observed Celia and William exit their home, at which point they approached the couple, identified themselves as officers, and asked to speak.  Celia proceeded to ignore the deputies’ orders, refuse to speak to them, and got in her car.  The deputies then grabbed her forearm and pulled her keys out of the ignition to prevent her from leaving.

During this time, William was standing at the front of the car with a large duffel bag.  Accounts differ as to whether William attempted to grab anything out of the bag.  The deputies raised their firearms at him, and when they realized William had a cellphone, and not a weapon in his hands, they holstered their guns and handcuffed him.  They pushed William’s head onto the car and allegedly spread his legs apart, forcing his knees to buckle and turning his head past the normal range of motion.  Celia yelled that they were hurting his recently surgically repaired shoulders, and the deputies utilized a second pair of handcuffs to create a “daisy chain” to give his shoulders more room.  After being detained, the Bernal’s provided the address of Ryan’s grandmother, where Ryan was arrested and pleaded no contest to making threats to commit a crime resulting in death or great bodily injury.

The Bernal’s filed suit alleging, among other things, that the deputies violated their Fourth Amendment rights by detaining them with excessive force.  The District Court granted the deputies’ motion for summary judgment to dismiss the claims, and the Bernal’s appealed.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed whether and to what extent law enforcement may detain people who are not suspected of a crime, but who have information essential to preventing crime.  In general, the Fourth Amendment prevents law enforcement from detaining a person without reasonable suspicion that the person committed a crime.  The Court noted the U.S. Supreme Court created an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s “reasonable suspicion” requirement which allows officers to detain and question non-suspect witnesses in exigent circumstances that require immediate action.

The Court concluded that the deputies indeed had the authority, albeit limited, to briefly detain and question the Bernal’s about Ryan’s location to prevent an imminent school shooting.  The deputies knew the Bernal’s had information regarding Ryan’s location, which was crucial to prevent a potential mass murder.  The Court found that the witness-detention exception to the reasonable suspicion requirement was created for this type of situation.

The Court further concluded that the minimal force used against Celia was reasonable to prevent her from driving away with key information regarding Ryan’s location.  The Court disagreed with the lower court that the force used against William was reasonable.  The deputies realized William was carrying a cellphone, and not a gun, before they went to arrest him.  Because he was complying with their orders, the Court determined that pushing his head against the car, kicking his legs apart, and applying pressure against his shoulders was an excessive use of force.  The Court upheld the motion for summary judgment with respect to Celia but allowed William’s case to proceed.

Bernal v. Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, et al, 2023 U.S. App LEXIS 17141 (9th Cir. 2023).

Note: The Court declined to identify an exact amount of time that law enforcement would be allowed to detain witnesses under the exigent circumstances- crime prevention exception to the Fourth Amendment, but noted that the 20 minutes this exchange took was reasonable.

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