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Warrant? I Don’t Need no Stinking Warrant!

  • Jim Mason, Esq. Senior Counsel, HSLDA
  • 2013 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
Warrant? I Don’t Need no Stinking Warrant!

What would you do if a police officer came to the door of your home and demanded to be allowed inside? Would you ask to see a warrant? Or would you simply stand aside?

This was the situation that 23-year-old Joseph Batt faced on Tuesday, April 17, 2012. At the time, Joe lived at home with his parents, Tim and LuAnn, and younger siblings in Orchard Park, New York.

A few months earlier, the Batts had taken in LuAnn’s father, Fred, who had dementia and other chronic illnesses. On April 16, LuAnn had had a discussion with a relative about some of Fred's personal possessions.

On Tuesday afternoon, Joe’s mom was at a doctor’s appointment and his dad was on his way home from work, leaving Joe to tend to Grandpa Fred. When Joe saw two police cars parked in front of his house, he did not feel alarm, only curiosity about why they were there.

He approached the two officers, who were casually chatting outside their cars, and asked if there was a problem.

Lieutenant Joseph Buccilli demanded that Joe produce his driver's license, which Joe had left in the house. The officer then demanded to know his full name and date of birth. After answering the question, Joe again asked why the officers were at his home. Buccilli said they were there to perform a "welfare check" on behalf of adult protective services. He then demanded to be allowed inside.

“You do not have permission to come in”

The Batts have been members of Home School Legal Defense Association since Joe was a child, so he grew up reading about his Fourth Amendment rights in The Home School Court Report. Furthermore, Joe’s older brother, Dan, is a federal law-enforcement agent, a profession which the Batt family holds in high regard.

Joe respectfully refused Officer Buccilli’s demand to enter the home. He told the officer that his grandfather had just been seen by a nurse’s aide who reported that all was well.

Lt. Buccilli angrily told Joe that he didn’t need a warrant to conduct a welfare check. He said he would enter without permission and arrest Joe if he obstructed him in any way.

When Joe stepped inside to call his older brother on his cell phone, Lt. Buccilli followed him. “Please don’t come in,” said Joe. “I am making a private call. You do not have permission to come in.”

But the officer stuck his foot into the doorway and prevented Joe from closing it. He then pushed the door open and stepped inside.

Inside the home, one of Joe’s younger siblings finally reached Dan on the home phone and handed the receiver to Lt. Buccilli.

Lt. Buccilli announced over the phone that he didn’t need a warrant and hung up, saying that Joe didn't know the law and that Buccilli had a right to come in without a warrant.

“You should not pretend to know the law!”

The officer pushed past Joe and went into the next room to see Fred. He lectured poor Fred—who had been visibly upset by the commotion—about how he had the right to forcibly enter a home when checking on the welfare of an adult.

As Lt. Buccilli finally left, he told Joe that he would “inform adult protective services about [your] lack of cooperation.” His parting shot was, “You should not pretend to know the law.”

In the meantime, Tim and LuAnn Batt heard about what was happening and hurried home. By the time LuAnn arrived, there were three policemen standing outside her home, including the police chief.

The police were soon joined by an adult protective services social worker who said she had received a report of an adult in need of services.

LuAnn invited her inside, and explained that her father was in hospice care and was seen regularly by a nurse, social worker, and nurse’s aide.

The social worker saw that LuAnn’s father was fine. She left in a few minutes, telling LuAnn that she was doing a good job. Fred has since passed away while in the comfort of his family’s home.

What’s really going on here?

I teach my children to be respectful toward and thankful for police officers and others in government service—those whose job is to keep the peace and serve the public. In fact, before I became a lawyer, I served in law enforcement for many years. In that time, I personally conducted just about every kind of search known to man.

So what was really going on in Orchard Park on April 17, 2012? We don’t know everything for sure, but here is what we surmise:

  • First, adult protective services received a vague, anonymous report about Fred’s care.
  • Second, the social worker called the police and asked them to meet her at the home. In our experience, investigative social workers, whether for children or adults, frequently call the police to accompany them to ensure “cooperation” when they arrive.
  • Third, the police officers arrived first and were chatting with each other while waiting for the social worker. We suspect that they did not know the precise nature of the report—only that one had been made.
  • Fourth, when he was approached by a young man asking why they were at his house, Lt. Buccilli decided to not wait for the social worker.

Here is what we do know: the Fourth Amendment does not permit the police to enter anyone’s home without a warrant unless there is a real emergency—even if it’s called a “welfare check.”

A civil rights lawsuit

After much prayer and thought, the Batts decided to sue Lt. Buccilli for violating their Fourth Amendment “right … to be secure in their house.”

They did not make that decision lightly, since they deeply respect law enforcement personnel in a real and personal sense. But they also hold the rule of law in high regard. They understand that police must respect citizens’ rights, and that when they don’t, they should be held to account.

The family hopes that their experience will result in good legal precedent, so that others will not be mistreated in the same way.

On December 11, 2012, HSLDA filed a civil rights suit against Lt. Buccilli in federal court. You may read the complaint here.

The battle for the front door

This case presents a new twist on an old story. In the early days of the homeschool movement, homeschooling was (wrongly) assumed to be illegal in many states. Homeschooling as an educational option was not as well-known as it is now, and far fewer children were being homeschooled back then.

Too often, early homeschoolers found an investigative social worker at their front door, often accompanied by uniformed police officers. These authorities were typically investigating anonymous tips that didn’t have much to do with homeschooling itself—often something like this: “The children are always home, they don’t go to school, and the family seems really religious.”

Homeschoolers soon learned that front-door encounters with an investigative social worker could be traumatic for both parents and children alike. Protecting our member families from such unwarranted investigations was what drew HSLDA into what we call “the battle for the front door”—defending Fourth Amendment rights.

Now, as many homeschooling families are beginning to care for aging relatives, we are seeing new challenges in the battle for the front door.

HSLDA has long believed that it is important to dispel the notion among police and other authorities that all Fourth Amendment bets are off when they demand to enter a home to conduct a “welfare check.”

Read about our other precedent-setting cases in which courageous homeschooling families changed the law and practices around the country, including the Calabretta case, the Stumbo case, and the Gauthier case. And please pray for the success of our appeal in the Loudermilk case, which we expect will be decided in summer 2013.

To all of our members whose dues support our mission to defend the rights of homes and families, thank you! If you are not already a member, please consider joining HSLDA to stand with the Batt family for freedom.

If you are considering end-of-the year giving, please consider donating to the Homeschool Freedom Fund. Your tax-deductible donation will be used specifically to fund HSLDA’s freedom-advancing cases such as this one.

Our homeschooling freedom depends on our remaining a free people, secure in our own homes.

Senior Counsel James R. Mason is a member of HSLDA’s litigation team, which helps homeschool families who are facing legal challenges. He and his wife homeschool.

Home School Legal Defense Association is a nonprofit advocacy organization established to defend and advance the constitutional right of parents to direct the education of their children and to protect family freedoms. Through annual memberships, HSLDA is tens of thousands of families united in service together, providing a strong voice when and where needed.

Publication date: January 2, 2013