James Radford Devon Brown James Radford (left) and Devon Brown (Photos: John Disney/ ALM)

The Atlanta Police Department has an unconstitutional policy of allowing city police to conduct warrantless searches of properties located in city commercial venues, according to a federal judge.

U.S. District Senior Judge Charles Pannell Jr. made that finding Tuesday in a civil rights lawsuit filed in 2016 against the city and multiple city police officers by a veteran Fulton County sheriff’s deputy.

Pannell also determined that the 2014 warrantless, no-knock raid of a space that Fulton County Deputy Devon Brown had rented in a south Atlanta strip mall for meetings of his motorcycle club “was unlawful from the start.”

“Brown has successfully proven that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated,” Pannell held in the Jan. 9 order. “The amount of damages will be determined by a jury at trial.” Brown, the judge said, may also seek punitive damages. “There is sufficient evidence in the record for a reasonable jury to conclude that individual defendants’ actions exhibited callous or reckless indifference to Brown’s federal rights,” he wrote.

The defendants include the City of Atlanta, six Atlanta police officers and detectives, two senior investigators from the city solicitor’s office, and a city building inspector.

In his order, Pannell also sanctioned the city for its repeated failure during the litigation to provide a knowledgeable witness to testify on the city’s behalf about the police department’s warrantless search policies.

“We had to fight and fight and fight with them to produce a witness who had any knowledge of what the city’s policies on this were,” said Brown’s lawyer, Decatur attorney James Radford. “Twice in a row, the city presented witnesses who had done no preparation and had no idea what the policies were.” Decatur attorney Joshua Brownlee is Radford’s co-counsel on the case.

Following the warrantless raid, police arrested Brown, a motorcycle enthusiast and 19-year veteran of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department, and charged him with violating city licensing ordinances, claiming he was running an illegal nightclub instead of simply hosting private club meetings at the venue, Radford explained. Brown was taken into custody, even though the ordinance violations with which he was charged were not arrestable offenses, the lawyer said.

At the time, the club, dubbed the Dirty South Slab Riders, had about 20 members, most of whom were current or retired law enforcement and military officers, Radford said. “It was never a chartered organization. It was just a group of friends.”

The venue, he added, “was basically a man cave.”

After the raid, Brown was convicted in Atlanta Municipal Court of violating the city’s business and alcohol licensing provisions—convictions that were thrown out on appeal by a Fulton County Superior Court judge, according to Radford and Pannell’s order. Brown also lost his job and was out of work for more than two years, Radford said. He was reinstated on appeal after his conviction was overturned, the lawyer said.

The Daily Report has contacted a city spokeswoman, the police department spokesman, and City Attorney Jeremy Berry with questions about the ruling and is awaiting a reply. Therese Stewart, an attorney with the city’s Law Department who litigated the case on the city’s behalf, referred questions to the city attorney.

Radford said that, on the night the motorcycle club was raided, police actually had planned to raid another business for which they had both search and arrest warrants. But when they showed up, that business was closed, he said.

One officer, a sergeant, recalled receiving information that other nearby establishments were also operating outside of normal business hours. “So they decide to go raid another place they don’t have a warrant for,” the lawyer explained.

When police entered the club, Brown informed them he did not need a business license or an alcohol license because the venue was a meeting hall, not a business, and no alcohol was being sold. But police refused to leave, Radford said. “They turned things over; they did a full search” of the premises, he said. “There was no illegal contraband or anything.”

Radford said that, in deposing city police after filing the lawsuit, he secured admissions from the department that it allows officers to enter buildings in commercial business zones without a warrant to make business license compliance checks if the business is open and the door is unlocked. In his order, Pannell cited testimony from defendant Bryant Burns, an Atlanta police sergeant.

Pannell also cited testimony by Atlanta police Sergeant Bryant Burns, a defendant in the case, who said that entering a business establishment without a warrant is a common practice for city police.

A police detective who was not a defendant in the case also testified that during those general business license inspections, “Once we get inside, determine whether there’s other crimes or violations being committed, that’s when we’ll determine whether or not we have probable cause to move forward with the investigation.”

Wrote Pannell: “In the absence of a carefully defined exception, a warrantless entry into a private commercial property is presumptively unreasonable and violates the Fourth Amendment. … Despite the city’s contention, the express terms of the city code show that the [Dirty South Slab Riders] was not a ‘private club subject to inspections.’ ”