Hot Pursuit and Tunnel Vision

I have been teaching pursuit policy training and this case automatically got my attention. One thing we speak on is tunnel vision.

Watkins, Simpson, and Billings brought an appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals after being denied qualified immunity at the trial court level. The issue stemmed from the arrest of Christina Mascorro’s son, Joshua Burchett.

July 23, 2007, at 11:30 pm, Deputy Craig Billings with the Murray County Sheriff Office, Oklahoma, saw 17 year old Joshua Burchett driving without his lights on. Billings turned around on Joshua Burchett to make a traffic stop but, Joshua Burchett went home and ran in hiding in the bathroom. He came through the front and only door leading inside/outside. The Mascarros were awakened to Billings kicking the door and cursing. Billings demanded that the door be opened and the occupants come outside.

Jose Mascorro went to the door and upon opening it. Billings pointed his firearm at Jose head and ordered him to his knees. Christine Mascorro tried to calm Billings down so she could understand what he wanted. Billings replied “I want the f--- that was driving the car outside”. Jose asked Billings if he had a warrant. Christine said it was her son and what he had done as she turned back inside. Billings sprayed her with pepper spray and stepped in the home. Billings sprayed her again then sprayed Jose and their fourteen year son.

Christine called 911 for help then Officer Steve Watkins, Sulphur Springs Police Department, Oklahoma, escorted her from her home leading her outside.   Once there were other officers present. Before Joshua   was taken from the home Billings pushed her into a wall and demanded Joshua’s location. Another officer mentioned summoning an ambulance and Billings said it was not needed. Christine asked for treatment and an ambulance was summoned.  

In the meantime Jose had gone to the kitchen to wash the pepper spray off of him. Officer Tony Simpson, from the Sulphur City Police Department, entered the kitchen and escorted Jose Mascorro outside. Billings told Simpson and Watkins that Joshua Burchett was in the bathroom. All three officers ordered him out and he refused. Simpson drew his firearm and kicked the door in and Joshua Burchett was taken into custody. The Mascorro’s contended that Billings was upset, angry, and screaming the entire time he was at the home.

The ambulance finally arrived. At that time Billings arrested cm and Jose Mascorro handcuffing them to the ambulance. The family was treated at the scene. Cm and Jose Mascorro were taken to jail and charged with obstruction. Billings charge cm with aggravated assault and battery on an officer.

Upon returning home the Mascorro’s found their home trashed and a hole kicked into a wall. The charges were eventually dismissed and the court found that Billings had illegally entered the home.   The Mascorro’s then filed suit with claims of unlawful entry, excessive use of force, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution and filed for summary judgment which was denied. The matter before the court was if the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

The court would not address the denial of qualified immunity in reference to the use of force, false imprisonment, nor in the case of Billings’ malicious prosecution as those questions had been addressed. Therefore, they had no venue. The court would address the unlawful entry claim. For the officers to overcome the issues they had to show that they did not violate the Mascorro's rights and that the rights were clear at the time of the incident.

The officers say their initial entry to the home was under the cause of Joshua Burchett’s traffic offense and the need to apprehend immediately. The court dismissed the claim stating that the entry was unlawful on its face and was not disputed. That left the court dealing with a request for qualified immunity.

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