Army 1st Sergeant Matthew Corrigan learned the hard way that the District of Columbia doesn’t believe it has to abide by the U.S. Constitution like the 50 states do. The city ignores the Fourth Amendment right of Americans to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. If police can’t be bothered to obtain a search warrant, officers have no problem busting open your front door and taking your property.
Most of all, Washington officials do not abide by the full meaning and spirit of the Second Amendment. The District believes it alone can bestow the right to keep arms on those who can afford hefty fees, pass a written test and tell the government about every single firearm owned. The Founding Fathers would be appalled.
(This is the fourth part of the series on Sgt. Corrigan’s case. Click here to read part 1, part 2 and part 3.)
The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) didn’t give much thought to the Constitution late at night when its SWAT team blew through due process and into the home of Sgt. Corrigan without a warrant.
The veteran was suspected of having a personal gun in his home that was not registered with the city.
In the light of day, the department realized its case was jeopardized by the lack of a warrant. So it came up with a story of “exigent circumstances” to cover for this oversight.
Sgt. Corrigan’s attorney unraveled the scheme before trial, and the D.C. Office of the Attorney General was forced in May to drop all ten misdemeanor charges against the defendant.
However, the damage to the reservist who volunteered to serve a year in Iraq was beyond repair. He is currently suing the city for a minimum of $500,000 in damages. The story of how the city’s case against Sgt. Corrigan fell apart is instructive.
Warrantless Search and Seizure
At 4 a.m. on Feb. 3, 2010, MPD officers woke Sgt. Corrigan and ordered him out of his home. They demanded the keys to his English-basement apartment. When the soldier refused, the officers broke down his front door, ransacked his apartment, threw his dog Matrix in the pound and seized his three personal guns and seven types of ammunition.
The cops zip-tied the first sergeant’s hands and put him into an armored command truck, where he was questioned before any guns were found.
The police did not read the drill sergeant his rights until he was formally charged two days later with ten misdemeanors.
They also didn’t check with a judge. “When I was secured, a warrant could have been obtained,” Sgt. Corrigan said.
“When I offered not to give my consent to enter my place, a warrant could have been obtained. When the first weapon in plain view was alleged seen, a warrant could have been obtained.
“When they did ‘not have an initial on explosives,’ a warrant could have been obtained. During each of these incidents what was the exigency that prevented a warrant from being obtained?”
Exigent Circumstances - Booby Traps
Sgt. Corrigan’s attorney, Richard Gardiner, filed a motion to suppress the evidence in Aug. 2010 because the police violated his client’s rights to be free of unreasonable search and seizure.
Assistant attorney general, Avril Luongo, opposed the motion. She said exigent circumstances justified the search.
According to the Nov. 2010 filing, Sgt. Corrigan was an expert in planting explosives and there was a smell of gas in the building. MPD “gained intelligence about the defendant, including information that the defendant was an Iraqi [sic] war veteran with specialized training (believed to be training in connection with deploying ‘booby traps’).”
The government’s court filing concludes that, “Under the totality of the circumstances – the smell of natural gas, the information that the defendant had a military background and experience with booby traps, the defendant’s call to the suicide hotline – the officers reasonably believed a crisis situation existed. Thus the urgency of that crisis, including the need to secure the premises, was the basis of their decision to perform a warrantless search.”
Both exigent circumstances — the smell of natural gas and experience with booby traps — were fabricated.
The emergency ordnance disposal (EOD) team on the scene said there was no evidence of explosives at the apartment. The same experts declined to use a dog trained to sniff out explosives, and instead brought in a special gun-searching dog.
In discovery, Mr. Gardiner asked for copies of the police notes and documents from that evening, and found they contained no reference to “booby traps.” He asked Ms. Luongo for the rest of the evidence supporting her theory, but that was all she had.
“She told me she would talk directly to the police officers,” Mr. Gardiner recalled of his conversation with Ms. Luongo. “She never told me what was said, but the next thing she filed was the a notice to withdraw the claims of booby traps because the police couldn’t substantiate it.”
A spokesman for the D.C. attorney general’s office would not comment on the case, but provided me with a supplemental document filed by attorney general Irvan Nathan before the hearing. “Upon further investigation, the government is no longer relying on the proffer that the Metropolitan Police Department was aware that the defendant had training in the deployment of ‘booby traps,’” he wrote to the court.
Exigent Circumstances - Smell of Gas
At the hearing on April 18 on the motion to suppress, the prosecutor only had the supposed smell of gas to say their search was based on an exigent circumstance. This excuse fell apart quickly.
The night of the raid, the police told Sgt. Corrigan’s upstairs neighbor, Tammie Sommons, that someone had reported the smell of gas coming from his apartment. She told them that there was no gas in the downstairs and the stove was electric.
In an interview, she recalled telling the cops that “If they smelled something, it’s just my roommate who was cooking chicken parmesan.”
A week after the incident, MPD Lt. Robert Glover wrote a summary report to Chief Cathy L. Lanier in which he noted “a noted ‘strong odor’ of natural gas emanating from the immediate area in and around the target address.”
In court, Mr. Gardiner questioned Officer Carlos Heraud, who was one of the first on the scene and who had interviewed Ms. Sommons. Asked on the stand if he smelled gas that night, Mr. Heraud said he did not. There was no mention of gas or explosions in the officer’s handwritten notes from that night.
Furthermore, an hour or two before the police woke up Sgt. Corrigan and arrested him, they had Washington Gas turn off the line to the building. A spokesman for MPD refused to comment on this case.
The Case Falls Apart
On the morning of April 19, D.C. Superior Court Judge Michael Ryan granted the defense’s motion to suppress the evidence because the search violated the Fourth Amendment.
The prosecutor asked for 30 days to determine whether the city would appeal the ruling. Judge Ryan granted the request, then set the next status hearing for May 21.
Ms. Luongo called Mr. Gardiner a week before the hearing to inform him that the city decided against appealing the decision. She also said that all the charges against Sgt. Corrigan would be dropped, due to the lack of evidence.
Soldier’s Guns Confiscated
The city was still holding Sgt. Corrigan’s property, which includes two pistols, a rifle and ammunition, and he wanted it back.
The MPD property clerk could ship the firearms to a police station near Sgt. Corrigan’s home. Or, under federal law, the soldier could lawfully transport his firearms from the evidence building in Southwest, D.C. to the Commonwealth, as long as they are properly stowed.
When Mr. Gardiner petitioned for the return of these items at the May 21 hearing, Judge Ryan initially protested that Sgt. Corrigan would be violating the D.C.’s registration laws if the guns were returned.
Mr. Gardiner told the judge that his client is now a resident of Virginia, where registration is not required. He could have his property returned lawfully in two ways.
A new prosecutor assigned to the case told the judge that he was unprepared to discuss this issue. Judge Ryan gave the city three days to file a response, and he would rule within a week.
The city filed documents repeating the discredited claim Sgt. Corrigan was planting booby traps and that the police smelled gas on the property.
“I was just amazed. What they brought up was so unbelievable,” said Mr. Gardiner, a longtime firearms attorney.
The judge as not yet ruled on the return of Sgt. Corrigan’s guns, but the city has no right to this stolen property.He asked the judge’s clerk if he could file a reply.“I wrote that the opposition is unethical because he presents facts to a judge that he knows are not true because the assistant attorney general previously filed a notice to the court that withdrew these claims.”
The soldier has suffered enough from the trauma of the raid, including two weeks in jail and two weeks years under court-ordered sanctions all over a set of charges that were dismissed.
This brave vet came home to the nation’s capital, where he lost his freedom, privacy and constitutional rights. It’s time for the city to do what’s right.
Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at the Washington Times. Her “Emily Gets Her Gun” series on the District’s gun laws won the 2012 Clark Mollenhoff Award for Investigative Reporting from the Institute on Political Journalism.You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.