Everyone makes mistakes; such is life. No one is perfect. Learn the lesson and do not let it happen again. One such mistake occurred recently in Mancini v. City of Tacoma, 2021 WL 279715 (2021).
On a crisp morning in January of 2011 at 9:45 a.m., eight Tacoma police officers broke open the door of Ms. Mancini’s apartment with a battering ram. Instead of finding the unkempt apartment of a small-time drug dealer, they found the neat and tidy apartment of an older nurse. Ms. Mancini was sleeping when the police smashed her door in. Police handcuffed her wearing a nightgown and without shoes, and took her outside while police searched her apartment. Ms. Mancini sued the police for negligence in the performance of their duties.
A confidential informant informed Officer Smith she had seen a dealer-sized quantity of drugs at an apartment. She identified the apartment as B1 and said the apartment was rented in a woman’s name. Smith used one website to search the information provided, learning Ms. Mancini resided at apartment B1, and the drug dealer was not associated with the apartment. Smith did not recall learning Ms. Mancini had rented apartment B1 since 2006, Ms. Mancini paid the utilities for apartment B1, and a Group Health landline was associated with apartment B1 for Mancini’s work.
Smith would typically perform surveillance and conduct a controlled buy to verify a target apartment—this practice occurred in 95 percent of similar investigations. He did neither in this case. Smith applied for and obtained a search warrant, which police executed on Ms. Mancini’s apartment. She was “dragged” outside and, as noted above, denied her request to put on shoes. Once outside, she informed the police the drug dealer’s vehicle they pointed out was connected to a person living in the neighboring apartment building. The police ignored her pleas of innocence for approximately 15 minutes.
Smith testified he knew immediately after entering they had the wrong apartment. However, two “sweeps’ of Ms. Mancini’s apartment were performed. The police released Ms. Mancini and then went to knock on the drug dealer’s door. He quietly opened the door and permitted a peaceful search.
At the trial level, Ms. Mancini argued the police were negligent in the performance of their duties. The City argued a claim for “negligent investigation against law enforcement” does not exist in Washington. Unfortunately, the City’s counterargument was not an argument against Ms. Mancini’s claim. This argument opened the door for Ms. Mancini to make arguments rebutting the City’s assertions, permitting Ms. Mancini to show the jury just how bare and ineffective the investigation was. Ms. Mancini paradoxically responded she was not alleging negligent investigation and, “[t]here was virtually no police work done here.” The jury awarded $250,000 damages to Ms. Mancini.
The Court of Appeals reversed in an unpublished opinion. The Washington Supreme Court later found substantial evidence to support the verdict, reversing the Court of Appeals. The parties disputed whether Ms. Mancini’s negligence claim was for “negligent investigation” and, if so, whether such a tort exists in Washington.
However, Ms. Mancini did not allege negligent investigation in her complaint. The trial court did not instruct the jury on negligent investigation, and the jury did not return a special verdict finding negligent investigation.
Ms. Mancini claimed the police actions in “‘capturing’ and ”restraining” her fell below the standard of care, and thus the police were negligent in the “performance of their duties” in general. The Court held the general allegation of negligence was enough to put the City on notice, and all elements of plaintiff’s claim may be explored at trial.
Both denying the City’s counterargument and using the platform to argue the police actually did not conduct a proper investigation was clever. Arguments are not evidence, but it introduced the jury to all of the shortcomings of the police investigation. Plaintiff’s counsel likely used this tactic to incite juror anger, which can lead to large jury verdicts. Here, the jury found the police breached the duty of reasonable care owed to Ms. Mancini and the City’s negligence proximately caused Mancini’s injuries, awarding her damages totaling $250,000.
Defense attorneys must carefully craft arguments so as not to not open doors, which may permit opposing counsel to introduce facts the jury should never hear.