Woman gets chance to sue city over Tacoma police raid on wrong apartment

The Washington State Court of Appeals has reinstated a lawsuit brought against the city of Tacoma by a 66-year-old nurse who contends she was roughed up by police after they mistakenly targeted her house for a drug raid four years ago.

The opinion issued this week by Division I sends the case brought by Kathleen Mancini of Federal Way back to King County Superior Court for further proceedings, most likely a trial.

The Tacoma city attorney’s office issued a statement on the ruling Wednesday.

“The Court of Appeals ruled on a strictly legal issue, not on the facts of the case, and the City of Tacoma is currently evaluating it carefully and determining its next steps,” the statement read.

Mancini sued the city and police Chief Don Ramsdell in 2012, contending that Tacoma officers inappropriately broke down her door, pushed her to the floor, handcuffed her and then detained her for 30 minutes in the outside chill while searching for a reported drug dealer.

Turns out they had the wrong apartment.

Police later went to a nearby building where they found their target and arrested him without much ado, allowing him to sit on his couch while they sought a search warrant for his apartment, court records state.

Mancini alleged in her lawsuit that the police conduct amounted to battery, invasion of privacy and unlawful detention, among other things.

“I can honestly say I have never in my life been so terrified,” Mancini said in a sworn affidavit filed as part of the lawsuit. “For weeks I would wake up and cry every morning. That finally subsided, but the feeling of being violated has never gone away.”

Jean Homan, deputy Tacoma city attorney, successfully argued to Superior Court Judge James Cayce that Mancini’s case should be thrown out before making it to trial.

Homan cited long-standing legal precedent that severely limits a citizen’s ability to sue governments in Washington.

“In simple terms, plaintiff is alleging that the defendants were negligent in how they conducted their narcotics investigation,” Homan wrote in a pleading. “It is now well settled that there is no common law claim for negligent police investigation in Washington.”

Cayce agreed.

Appellate judges Stephen Dwyer, Marlin Appelwick and Linda Lau said Cayce got it wrong.

“Mancini brings no such lawsuit,” according to the opinion, written by Dwyer. “She claims that she had a common law right in the sanctity of her home and that the city’s agents had a duty to not engage in a nonconsensual invasion of her dwelling.

The court drew what it called “a simple analogy” to explain its position.

A police officer who runs into another driver stopped at a stop sign arguably could be found negligent whether “the officer’s inattention resulted from the officer’s munching on a sandwich (a purely private act) or punching data into the patrol car’s computer (a governmental act).

“In either instance, the officer (and his employer) would be liable … to the same extent as would be a private actor,” Dwyer wrote.

Mancini, at the very least, has a right to present her case to a jury, the opinion states.

“Viewed in the light most favorable to Mancini, the trial court record shows that Mancini was menaced with firearms, shouted at, pushed face down on the floor and placed in handcuffs before being picked up off of the floor and forcibly led to the entrance of her apartment,” Dwyer wrote. “In view of these facts, we decline to hold, as a matter of law, that the force used against Mancini was reasonable.”

The case started in late 2010 when Tacoma police officer Kenneth Smith got a tip from a confidential informant that a man known to be a felon and to sometimes carry a gun was dealing methamphetamine and marijuana out of a Federal Way apartment.

The informant later rode with Smith to the apartment complex and pointed out Mancini’s unit as the drug house, court records show.

“I had worked with this particular (informant) on at least two prior investigations, where he/she provided specific information which resulted in the arrests of large-scale narcotics dealers,” Smith said in a sworn affidavit.

Smith later said he did not place Mancini’s house under observation or try to have an informant go there to try to buy drugs before leading the raid on her apartment.

Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, who was hired as a defense expert in the case, criticized those decisions, characterizing it as shoddy police work.

“I can unequivocally and emphatically state that hitting the wrong door should never happen,” Stamper said in a sworn statement.

Smith later assembled an eight-person team to raid Mancini’s home. The officers were heavily armed and clad in body armor and helmets, court records show.

He described in his statement the team using a battering ram to break down Mancini’s door, coming across Mancini in the hallway and handcuffing her.

“She told me she that she was a nurse and worked out of her home,” Smith said. “I immediately removed the handcuffs from Ms. Mancini. She was detained in wrist restraints for no more than one minute while a brief protective sweep of the apartment was done to ensure that it was clear.”

After realizing he was at the wrong apartment, Smith said he gave Mancini his business card and left to try to find the right unit.

Mancini described the raid, which occurred about 9:30 a.m., differently.

She said she was asleep after working the night shift when she heard a boom she thought at first was an earthquake, court records show.

“Members of this SWAT team surrounded me and roughly pushed me face down on the floor,” Mancini wrote in a sworn statement. “They had guns pointed at my head.”

She said she was dragged outside, where she was made to stand in the cold handcuffed and in her nightgown for nearly 30 minutes while police tore clothes off their hangers, rifled through her kitchen pantry and searched a box containing religious items that had belonged to her late mother.

“I felt shamed and humiliated,” wrote Mancini, who also contends her shoulder was injured during the incident.

It will now be up to a jury to decide whether she deserves compensation for those alleged damages.