Burbank police officials hailed a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week that determined officers were justified in invading the home of a Bellarmine-Jefferson High School student without a warrant in 2007 out of concern that an attack was imminent.
The court essentially upheld a decision by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, which had thrown out a lawsuit against Officers Edmundo Zepeda, Chris Roberts, Fernando Munoz and Sgt. Darin Ryburn for illegally entering the home of Vincent Huff, the Bell-Jeff student, on June 1, 2007.
The officers were responding to a call from the school's principal, who said Vincent was going to “shoot up” the campus and had been absent for two days, according to court documents.
Once at the Huff residence, Ryburn and Zepeda spoke with Vincent and his mother briefly outside the home after the family failed to answer the door and hung up on a phone call.
The Huffs then refused to allow the officers inside. When asked whether there were any weapons in the house, the mother reportedly turned around and went inside without a word. The officers rushed in behind her, without a warrant, out of fear that a violent confrontation was imminent, according to court documents. The officers found no weapons.
“Everybody was trying to act in the interest of public safety,” Burbank Interim Police Chief Scott LaChasse said. “A supervisor was out there quickly to assume command of the situation, and he had to make an immediate judgment about the question of guns being inside, and you can make a compelling case that there was a need for follow up considering the background of the situation.”
Sgt. Darin Ryburn, public information officer for the department and a 25-year veteran, was the supervisor on the scene.
“He made the right decision,” LaChasse said. “It demonstrates that officers did operate in good faith with the protection of the public of paramount importance.”
Calling an appellate panel’s reasoning for overturning the U.S. District Court’s opinion “unrealistic,” the Supreme Court said, “judges should be cautious about second-guessing a police officer's assessment, made on the scene, of the danger presented by a particular situation.”
Attempts to reach the Huff family were unsuccessful. Their attorney, Leo James Terrell of Beverly Hills, did not immediately return calls for comment.
LaChasse cited the case as being a shining example of the value of comprehensive police training.
“You hear periodically about the cost of police training, and this is an example of one of the reasons why training is absolutely essential,” he said.
Another important consideration is public safety, he added.
“That was the concern here,” LaChasse said. “There was alarm from the school, and the unexplained activity from the mother during the encounter left a lot to be determined.
“At that point [police] needed to make an immediate decision; there was no time to consult with a legal advisor or attorney. There was no hidden agenda. Officers opined they couldn’t leave the scene without ensuring for the public safety because of the uncertainty from the gun.”