The state Court of Appeals has reversed a King County Superior Court judge’s decision to toss out a lawsuit filed by a woman who was dragged out of her apartment when a Tacoma police SWAT team bashed in the wrong door during a drug raid.
The state Court of Appeals has revived a lawsuit filed by a nurse who was handcuffed and forcibly led out of her Federal Way apartment after a Tacoma police SWAT team bashed in the wrong door during a 2011 drug raid.
The three-judge appellate panel found this week that King County Superior Court Judge James Cayce erred in 2013 when he dismissed Kathleen’s Mancini’s claim of negligence against the city of Tacoma and its police department. The judges also said Cayce should not have excluded testimony from the health-care providers who treated Mancini, now 68, in the aftermath of the Jan. 5, 2011, raid.
The appellate judges remanded Mancini’s case to superior court for trial so she can pursue her claims that police were negligent and that she was the alleged victim of assault and battery, false imprisonment and invasion of privacy.
“Reduced to its essence … police are liable for negligent actions, just like anyone else,” Mancini’s lawyer, Lori Haskell, said of the Court of Appeals opinion.
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Haskell said she’s thrilled Mancini will get her day in court. “I think it’s important for a jury to hear the particulars of what happened to her,” she said.
The Tacoma City Attorney’s Office emailed the following response: “The Court of Appeals ruled on a strictly legal issue, not on the facts of the case, and the City of Tacoma is currently evaluating it carefully and determining its next steps. Any comment beyond this would be an inappropriate comment on pending litigation.”
The Court of Appeals ruling cites extensive legal analysis by late state Supreme Court Justice Tom Chambers on the public-duty doctrine, with judges writing that Chambers’ opinion in a 2012 Skagit County lawsuit controlled their decision in Mancini’s case.
The city of Tacoma had argued it was immune from liability for negligence based on the public-duty doctrine — basically, that if a government or its agents, such as police officers, owe a duty to the public in general, then it is not liable for a breach of that duty to an individual.
Cayce agreed and dismissed Mancini’s lawsuit on summary judgment.
The doctrine “was created to ensure governments are not saddled with greater liability than private actors as they conduct the people’s business,” according to the Court of Appeals opinion. But Chambers explained the public-duty doctrine didn’t apply to duties governments had in common with private individuals, the opinion says.
The appellate court ruled Mancini’s negligence claims are grounded in the common-law right to the sanctity of her home:
“This duty, the duty to refrain from invading a private individual’s home, whether intentionally (trespass) or negligently (resulting from the absence of due care) is one of common law origin and applies to all,” the opinion says. “Her neighbors could not invade her home. The same is true of the City’s agents.”
The 38-page opinion reads like a stinging rebuke of the Tacoma police, who immediately knew they were in the wrong apartment but went ahead and searched Mancini’s unit.
Mancini was forced to stand outside barefooted, in her nightgown and handcuffs for at least 30 minutes, after her front door “was blown off its hinges with a battering ram,” according to the unpublished opinion.
Mancini lived in apartment 1B, while the cops’ intended target — a felon with a long history of drug and firearms crimes — lived in apartment 1A in a different building in the same complex, according to the opinion and other court documents filed as part of her 2012 civil case.
In contrast to the way Mancini was treated, the police officers executing the raid later knocked on the suspected drug dealer’s door and then allowed him “to sit on his living room couch” without being placed in handcuffs while they awaited a warrant to search his apartment, according to the opinion.
The opinion notes that Officer Kenneth Smith, who was in charge of the raid, relied on a tip from a confidential informant (CI) who had been in the suspect’s apartment a month earlier “and had seen a sufficient quantity of drugs to indicate” he was selling drugs.
“The CI pointed to Mancini’s unit and identified it as the location where she had seen the drugs,” the opinion says. Smith then obtained a warrant for Mancini’s apartment.
“Smith subsequently admitted that, although he usually would have placed a suspected drug dealer’s apartment under surveillance and performed a ‘controlled buy’ prior to seeking a search warrant, he did not employ those procedures in this instance,” the opinion says.
In a deposition Smith gave in August 2013 as part of the civil suit, he said he didn’t do surveillance or set up a controlled buy at the man’s apartment before the raid because if he had done so, King County prosecutors would have wanted a full packet of information on his informant and more details about the investigation.
Prosecutors in Pierce County did not require the same amount of information, Smith said during his deposition.
The police-incident report Smith wrote after the raid described how police entered Mancini’s apartment after making a “knock and announce.”
“Mancini’s apartment was not searched and she was immediately released,” the incident report says.
The Court of Appeals opinion describes events very differently:
Then 63, Mancini was a nurse who worked the graveyard shift. Around 9:30 a.m., she was awakened by the sound of her door being busted in.
She encountered numerous officers, dressed in SWAT gear with their weapons drawn, in her hallway.
The officers shouted at her to get down and “pushed Mancini, who stands approximately five feet tall, face down onto the floor,” the opinion says.
Placed in handcuffs, Mancini was forcibly led outside, where she stood on the breezeway “wearing only a nightgown for approximately 30 minutes.”
Though the suspected drug dealer lived in Federal Way, which is in King County, Tacoma police organized the raid because it was Smith who received the tip from his confidential informant.
During the search of Mancini’s apartment, officers removed clothing from hangers in the closet, moved a bed, disturbed a number of religious icons belonging to her deceased mother, rifled through kitchen cabinets and searched her fireplace, the opinion says.
According to the police-incident report, a Pierce County judge later signed a warrant for the suspected drug dealer’s apartment, where Smith said officers found a stolen handgun, a sawed-off shotgun, meth, marijuana and marijuana plants.
It does not appear criminal charges were ever filed against the man in connection with the raid by the Tacoma SWAT team, court records show.