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Bellevue family sues FBI over 'terrifying' raid

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

The lasting impact of the raid on Gary Adams' home became clear in a comment from his 3-year-old granddaughter during a recent trip to the pharmacy.

"She said, 'Granddad. Police. Hide,' " Adams, 57, of Bellevue recalled Wednesday while discussing the federal lawsuit he filed against the officers who burst into his home March 3.

Led by FBI Special Agent Karen Springmeyer, about a dozen officers used a battering ram to enter Adams' rented Orchard Street home in a search for Sondra Hunter, then 35. But Hunter hadn't lived at that address for almost two years, while Adams and his family had been living there for more than a year, according to the lawsuit filed by Adams and 10 other family members.

The family crowded into a Downtown conference room with their lawyer, Timothy O'Brien, to discuss the case.

An FBI spokeswoman referred all calls to the U.S. Attorney's Office, where a spokeswoman declined to comment.

The lawsuit says that officers knew, or should have known, that Hunter no longer lived there. By executing an arrest warrant at a residence that wasn't Hunter's, they violated the family's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure, and their Fifth Amendment right to due process, the lawsuit says.

The officers were part of a local, state and federal task force rounding up more than three dozen people suspected of being members of the Manchester Original Gangsters street gang. Hunter was still at large at the end of the sweep, and court records show that she was living in Long Beach, Calif., at the time. She returned to Pittsburgh when she heard she was wanted by the police.

She is charged with conspiracy and heroin trafficking and is free on a $25,000 unsecured bond.

Adams said he knew Hunter's family from when they lived in Manchester, but there was no other connection between them and no reason for police to believe that Hunter lived in the house.

Other than citations for traffic violations and scalping tickets without a permit, Adams has been a law-abiding citizen.

The incident destroyed his confidence in the police and his ability to sleep through the night, he said.

"They had guns on my wife, my babies. I'd like to know how they would feel -- the people in my house -- if that happened to them," he said.

Denise Adams, 58, said seeing the red dots from the officers' targeting lasers crawl across her children's faces also has cost her faith in law enforcement.

"I don't want to, but this was terrifying," she sobbed.

Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said arrest warrants don't give police carte blanche to enter any building because they think a suspect is inside. Instead, such warrants only authorize police to go to the person's residence.

Police usually enjoy "qualified immunity" from lawsuits even when they make mistakes, as long as they were carrying out their duties responsibly, he said. Entering a residence without probable cause, however, would strip the immunity away from those officers.

University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris said the family faces several obstacles in winning. In particular, he thought it would be tough for them to overcome the officer's qualified immunity because the Supreme Court has repeatedly raised the bar for suing police officers.

"Not only do they have to make a mistake, it has to have been particularly egregious," for them to lose immunity, he said. "They have to be violating a law that was absolutely crystal clear, and they have to have known it."

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