A Champlin couple won a $90,000 award from a U.S. District Court jury after police snatched a pair of Skechers shoes off their porch during an illegal search while they slept.
"It should send a chill down anyone's spine," said homeowner Ron Rosen Thursday in an interview about the case, which also included a search of his house two weeks later. "I did nothing to precipitate this except live in proximity to where a burglary occurred."
The city disputes the judge's finding that the porch search was illegal and said it will contest the jury award.
The episode began after midnight on Jan. 8, 2010, when police responded to an alarm and possible burglary at a Champlin veterinary clinic. As part of their investigation, three officers followed a scent-tracking dog that loosely led them to the back porch of the home where Rosen and June I. Trnka lived. The couple were asleep when the officers entered the porch area through an unlocked screen door, according to court documents and interviews.
During a three-day trial last week, the officers testified that they saw a pair of shoes with snow on them on the porch, with wet footprints leading to them. Sgt. Bill Schmidt and officer Roxanne Affeldt said they knocked on the door from the porch into the kitchen, but got no answer, so they took the shoes and returned to the clinic. They left no receipt or notice that they had been there.
The officers photographed the shoes and took them to the police property room, though they didn't match prints in the snow near the clinic, the couple's lawsuit said. The couple said they searched for the shoes the next morning but figured that a homeless person had needed them, and that they needed to make sure their back door was more secure.
Two weeks later, officers returned to the Rosen home with a warrant and spent 90 minutes in which they "tore apart" the place, the lawsuit said. The suit, filed by lawyer Paul Applebaum on behalf of the couple, also said the officers held Rosen captive in part of his home and threatened him to confess to burglarizing the veterinary clinic.
Judge's finding, instructions
After last week's trial in Minneapolis, Judge Ann Montgomery determined that the officers had violated the constitutional rights of Rosen and Trnka with an illegal search on Jan. 8. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
The judge determined, however, that the second search with a warrant on Jan. 22 was legal. She also told the jury that Rosen and Trnka had nothing to do with the burglary of the veterinary clinic.
Montgomery gave the jury a form with the sole mission of determining how much money Rosen and Trnka should receive.
The jurors awarded Rosen and Trnka $10,000 each in compensatory damages. They also tacked on punitive damages of $70,000, awarding the couple $55,000 for Schmidt's actions and $15,000 for Affeldt's.
"I never went into this lawsuit with the objective of money," Rosen said. "It was my right, but more importantly my responsibility as a citizen, to stand up for my constitutional rights."
City, homeowner comments
The city has asked the judge to nullify the award and order a new trial. In a 31-page motion, lawyer Jason Hively argued that the officers' actions fell within the scope of their authority — that they had legally entered the porch and also had knocked on the door to the home before entering but got no response from inside.
The motion said that in the legal search, officers merely "rifled through" items and caused "minor damage" to a wood bed frame that Rosen was able to repair himself.
Hively's motion also argued that Rosen and Trnka suffered only "garden-variety emotional distress," not "diagnosed emotional or psychological conditions as a result of the search."
Rosen, who is running for Champlin City Council and owns a small-engine repair shop, countered that the damages were substantial from four years of stress. For one, he said, the family has been wary of police since the incident and the parents had to tell the children to trust the police even though the couple said the officers had trashed their bedrooms in the search.
Rosen also said that had the officers woke the couple, it could have been fatal to someone.
"It starts with a pair of shoes," Rosen said, adding, "This could have been a completely different story."
If Montgomery doesn't rule in Champlin's favor, Hively said, the city would appeal to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.