APD Sued Over 2003 Search

Southeast Austin family charges it was target of illegal police raid

The Texas Civil Rights Project on July 21 filed a federal lawsuit against the Austin Police Department on behalf of a Southeast Austin family, which says its constitutional rights were violated when members were subject to an unlawful arrest and an unreasonable search last fall.

The suit alleges that brothers Ricardo Villegas and Alejandro Villegas, Claudia Gutierrez, and her two young children were at home asleep around midnight on Oct. 17 when they heard four gunshots outside. Twenty minutes later they heard shots again, followed by "yelling and screaming" outside their house. Looking outside, the brothers saw approximately 15 Austin police officers surrounding their house; the officers yelled for them to come outside, which they did, one by one. Outside, the four adults were held at gunpoint and told to lie on the ground; Gutierrez's 3-year-old and 8-month-old remained inside sleeping. The officers – as yet unnamed in the lawsuit – then demanded that the family members tell them the location of a gun, the suit alleges, and ignored repeated protestations that the family did not own a gun. "You better tell us where the gun is before we get in the house," the lawsuit alleges the police replied, "because if we find it, things are going to be worse." Alejandro Villegas repeated that there was no gun.

Still, police handcuffed the four, then yelled inside for the two children to wake up. With the children still asleep inside, the officers, guns drawn, entered the house to search for the phantom weapon. "They opened drawers, emptied the clothes in piles on the floor, and pulled out items from under beds," the suit alleges. "The officers did not find a gun, or anything illegal, for that matter."

After concluding their fruitless search, the officers removed the handcuffs and left without explanation, the lawsuit alleges. "The officers never justified their actions and said only, 'we do this all the time,'" reads the lawsuit. "No apology was ever given."

In a short statement, the APD says that the officers were responding to a "shots fired" call that had come in to 911 from Granger Drive. After making contact with the caller – a neighbor of the Villegas brothers and Gutierrez – the officers heard a second round of shots, which they thought were coming from the Villegas house. Subsequently, the officers determined that the shots had actually come from a "location on Deep Circle, which is directly behind the [Villegas'] residence," the release reads – and that's where, ultimately, the officers found their perp and gun.

"After an Internal Affairs investigation and review by the Police Monitor's Office approximately nine months ago," the statement concludes, "it was determined that officers followed APD policies and procedures by securing a potentially dangerous and volatile situation."

Jim Harrington, director of the TCRP, disagrees with the rosy summation: If everything was by the book that night, he asks, why doesn't the APD have any records of the incident at the Villegas house? "[A]fter many open records requests for incident reports ... no reports have been found," the lawsuit reads. Requests for "reports ... have also been made for the house located behind the Villegas home, where the gunshots originated, and no records have been located."

The lawsuit seeks $80,000 in actual damages and an additional $10,000 in punitive damages against each of the 15 officers at the Villegas home that night.

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Texas Civil Rights Project, TCRP, Jim Harrington, Alejandro Villegas, Ricardo Villegas, Claudia Gutierrez, Austin Police Department, APD, unlawful search, unlawful arrest

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