MILLER: Breaking doors and the Constitution

D.C. cops without a search warrant ransack veteran’s home in gun hunt

While Army 1st Sgt. Matthew Corrigan slept inside his Northwest Washington home, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) response teams were gathering outside. Dozens of SWAT and explosive-ordnance-disposal officers spent hours preparing a full-scale invasion of the residence in the middle of the snowstorm of the century. It was not an operation to protect the public from a terrorist or to stop a crime in progress. It was to rouse a sleeping man over a secondhand report that he might have an unregistered gun.

(This is part 2 of a four-part series. Click here to read part 1.)

It all started a bit before midnight on Feb. 2, 2010. Sgt. Corrigan had called the National Veterans Crisis Hotline for advice on coping with nightmares from his year in Iraq hunting for improvised explosive devices. Without his permission, he says, the hotline operator dialed 911 and reported Sgt. Corrigan “has a gun and wants to kill himself.” The drill sergeant told me he said nothing of the kind and his weapons were stowed away to avoid theft.

Around 1 a.m., the police knocked on the door of Tammie Sommons, Sgt. Corrigan’s upstairs neighbor in the row house. Ms. Sommons had lived there since 2008 with her three roommates and, in that time, had become a close friend of Sgt. Corrigan‘s. She often walked his dog, Matrix. “One officer told me that Matt called a suicide hotline and was about to kill himself,” she told me in an interview. “I said that was impossible, he wasn’t that kind of guy. I told the police I see him every day and would know if he was suicidal.”

MPD officers told Ms. Sommons that someone had reported the smell of gas coming from Sgt. Corrigan’s apartment. “I told them that there was no gas in his apartment - it was all electric,” she recalled. “I said if they smelled something, it’s just my roommate, who was cooking chicken Parmesan.”

D.C. Gun Grabbing

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D.C. Gun Grabbing more >

They weren’t interested in the simpler explanation. “The cops said we needed to leave our house because Matt was going to shoot through the ceiling,” Ms. Sommons said. “They painted this picture like Rambo was downstairs and ready to blow up the place.”

At 4 a.m., the SWAT team awoke Sgt. Corrigan by calling his name on a bullhorn. He surrendered outside without incident. He was restrained and forced into a mobile tactical command truck. Without reading him his Miranda rights, he said, officers began questioning the Iraq veteran, trying to get him to admit to owning guns. He remained silent about his two handguns and one rifle, which he had not registered after moving into the city.

A police commander then jumped into the truck and demanded to know where Sgt. Corrigan put his house key. “I’m not giving you the key. I’m not giving consent to enter my house,” Sgt. Corrigan recalled saying. He said the officer responded, “I don’t have time to play this constitutional [game] with you. We’re going to break your door in, and you’re going to have to pay for a new door.”

“Looks like I’m buying a new door,” Sgt. Corrigan replied. His only request was they not hurt his dog.

Sgt. Corrigan was taken to the Veterans Affairs hospital, where, he said, he signed himself in to avoid being admitted involuntarily. “After having all those guns at me, I was broken,” he recalled. “I just wanted to sleep.” The reservist spent two nights in the hospital. When he got out, the police were waiting to charge him formally for the unregistered guns found during the warrantless raid.

Because Sgt. Corrigan had refused to permit a search of his house, the police broke down his door - without bothering to seek a search warrant before doing so, according to court papers. “They were all keyed up because they had been there and ready to go all night,” surmised Sgt. Corrigan’s attorney, Richard Gardiner.

The first to enter the supposedly dangerous apartment was not the bomb squad but a team that secured Matrix and handed him off to animal control, according to police reports. During what the cops called “explosive threat clearing efforts,” they found “hazardous materials,” which included two pistols, a rifle, binoculars, ammunition, fireworks and materials from Sgt. Corrigan’s days in Iraq.

Police Lt. Robert T. Glover was pleased with the seven-hour operation, which resulted in securing items commonly found in millions of homes across the country. He told Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier in his report that there were no recommendations for improvement.

The dry after-action notes give no clue to the property damage done that night. Officers tore apart the 900-square-foot place. Instead luggage being unzipped, knives were used to cut open and destroy the bags. The raiders dumped over bookshelves, emptied closets and threw clothes on the floor, Sgt. Corrigan said.

In the process, they knocked over the feeding mechanism for the tropical fish in the sergeant’s 6-foot-long aquarium. When he finally was released from jail two weeks later, all of his expensive pet fish were dead. The police turned on the electric stove and did not turn it off. They left without securing the broken door.

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