A federal judge has ruled that three St. Paul police officers violated a man's constitutional rights when they used a maintenance worker to trick him into opening the door before they arrested him and searched his apartment without a warrant.
A Jan. 23 order filed by U.S. District Judge Katherine Menendez said that Sgt. Heather Weyker, Sgt. Lynette Cherry and officer Christopher Hansen had no consent, arrest warrant or exigent circumstances when they arrested David Elgersma on July 11, 2019. Elgersma sued after his arrest, saying that law enforcement violated his Fourth Amendment protection from illegal search and seizure.
"The Court agrees, and finds both that the arrest was unlawful, and that its illegality was clearly established when it occurred," Menendez's order read. "Because Mr. Elgersma's arrest was unconstitutional, the defendant officers' entry into and search of his apartment are also unconstitutional."
According to details included in the order, officers arrived in plain clothes at Elgersma's apartment that day to arrest him for a nonviolent felony under a probable cause pickup order. They did not have a warrant to enter his apartment, so the building's leasing manager suggested a plan: A maintenance worker would knock at Elgersma's door pretending there was a water leak, and officers would enter when he opened the door.
They agreed, the judge's order says, and "as a result of this deception, Mr. Elgersma opened the door," the order read. "There is no dispute that this was the only reason Mr. Elgersma opened the door."
The officers then entered Elgersma's apartment as soon as he opened the door without announcing they were police. They arrested him, searched him and then searched his apartment.
Elgersma moved for summary judgment on his claims, but the officers countered that they are entitled to qualified and official immunity because they were working in their capacity as police officers, and asked Menendez to throw out the case.
Menendez sided with Elgersma, explaining that qualified immunity doesn't protect public officials when they violate a clearly established right of which a reasonable official would have been aware.
"Mr. Elgersma opened the door under false pretenses, unaware that he would be confronted instead by three plain-clothed police officers," Menendez's order said. "Not only was this an unconstitutional arrest, but ... its unlawfulness was clearly established."
The judge's ruling means that Elgersma's case will continue, as he also made state claims against St. Paul and the officers involved for battery, trespassing, false arrest and imprisonment. A Minnesota judge will decide when the case will be heard again.
Elgersma's attorney, Tim Phillips, said they are "very pleased" with the ruling. If the case goes to trial, a jury would decide how much money in damages Elgersma would be awarded for the officers' unconstitutional search, entry and arrest.
Phillips could not disclose how much Elgersma has requested in damages, but said that a conference last year ended with neither party agreeing on a settlement amount.
St. Paul police spokesman Sgt. Mike Ernster declined to comment on the order, referring questions to the St. Paul city attorney's office.
Weyker's conduct came under fire when, also as a St. Paul police officer, she was accused of lying in a major federal sex trafficking case.
A District Court's opinion noted that Weyker likely exaggerated or fabricated key aspects of the story in her interviews with one of the troubled teens claiming to be victims, and that it had caught Weyker lying to a grand jury and during a detention hearing. Prosecutors dropped charges in a case that once saw as many as 30 people charged, including 23 Somali Americans put behind bars for a collective 44 years for crimes of which they were never convicted.
The St. Paul Police Department's internal affairs investigation did not result in any discipline, and by 2017, she returned to investigative roles. Weyker and the other officers involved in Elgersma's case are still full-time active members of the St. Paul Police Department.
Ensuing lawsuits against Weyker related to the case were largely dismissed because, as part of a federal task force, she acted in the capacity of a federal official, a federal appeals court ruled.
But the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm based in Virginia, has asked the Supreme Court to review one of those dismissed cases for Ifrah Yassin, who tried to sue Weyker in 2017 for being arrested without probable cause. The court will review that petition to investigate her case further on Feb. 17.