Righting A Wrong House Raid 

Jared McClain
Jared McClain  ·  April 30, 2024

Everyone knows to check that they’re in the right place when arriving somewhere new. Maybe look for the address or distinguishing features of the property. It’s just a basic life skill—not something the Supreme Court needs to explain. Still, the Fifth Circuit ruled that a SWAT commander couldn’t have known that he had to make sure he had the correct house before ordering a raid. 

On March 27, 2019, a SWAT team assembled on the porch of the wrong house in Waxahachie, Texas. Lieutenant Mike Lewis realized the mistake just in time. He knew the suspected stash house was one door down. He just wasn’t sure which direction. The front-porch light on the house to his left obscured his view of its address. So, rather than go get a better look, he just guessed. 

A chain-link fence should have blocked his team’s path to the front porch and the detached garage of the house they planned to raid. But the house they approached didn’t have a fence, or a front porch, or a garage. Instead, officers had to climb a truly enormous L-shaped wheelchair ramp that wasn’t supposed to be there. 

Charging past all these red flags, officers smashed the front windows, detonated a flashbang, and kicked down the front door. The shattered windows rained down on Karen Jimerson’s children as they slept. Karen had just gotten out of the shower. Officers forced her down on the bathroom floor at gunpoint. Only then, someone shouted, “Wrong house!” 

A SWAT team conducting a no-knock, military-style raid while looking for a meth lab in the middle of the night exercised less care in confirming the address than a pizza delivery driver. 

Lieutenant Lewis admits that his raid violated the Fourth Amendment rights of Karen and her family. Yet, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit still held that he’s immune from accountability. Even though the Supreme Court ruled in Maryland v. Garrison that officers must make a “reasonable effort” to confirm they have the right place before executing a warrant, two judges decided that it wasn’t “clearly established” that Lieutenant Lewis had to make sure his SWAT team stormed the right house. His mistakes were excusable, the panel reasoned, because he took “some steps” to review details about the house before he drove over. 

The panel’s decision departs from prior Fifth Circuit precedent and four other circuit courts that have ruled that Garrison means what it says. The decision also departs from common sense.  

It shouldn’t take a prior case with identical facts to make clear that a SWAT commander should take a minute to make sure his team is breaking into the right house. It’s obvious. 

Sometimes courts are cautious when confronted with constitutional violations in fast-moving situations. But what happened to Karen and her family is nothing like that. Lieutenant Lewis had a copy of the warrant with a description of the target house and plenty of time to double-check those details before ordering the raid. His mistake was as preventable as it was egregious.  

That’s why IJ has teamed up with Karen to ask the full Fifth Circuit to rehear her case. Twice in recent years, the Supreme Court has reversed the Fifth Circuit’s grants of qualified immunity for obvious constitutional violations. Unless the full court corrects the panel’s decision, Karen’s case might make it a third time.

  

Jared McClain is an IJ attorney.

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