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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lawsuit filed after Seattle police officers break down wrong door

By Mike Carter Seattle Times

Elisabeth Rehn had been preparing a bath when she heard a loud thumping at the door of her Belltown apartment. She fumbled for a jacket and wrapped it around herself just as the door burst open, kicked out of its frame, and several police officers entered with guns drawn.

Rehn — confused, terrified and unsure who was at the door — by then had retreated to the kitchen, where officers found her, nearly hysterical, clutching a teapot in front of her.

Oops. Sorry. Wrong address.

Rehn, a 45-year-old Seattle therapist, filed a lawsuit last month against the city, alleging negligence and a violation of her constitutional protections against illegal search and seizure, claiming the officers had “rashly and recklessly” charged into the wrong building and apartment in response to a report of a man in crisis.

“Rehn had done nothing to justify [the intrusion], and defendants had no reasonable grounds to believe she had,” the lawsuit alleges. “Their actions put Ms. Rehn in mortal fear that she was going to be assaulted or killed in this incident through no fault of her own.”

The lawsuit alleges — and body camera video obtained by her attorney confirms — that officers “still continued to needlessly search her apartment while Ms. Rehn trembled in fear.”

Her Seattle civil rights attorney, Jay Krulewitch, said Rehn was preparing a bath when she heard someone at her door. The door was not equipped with a peephole, so Rehn couldn’t see who was demanding she open up.

“She didn’t know who it was or what was happening,” Krulewitch said. “She had time to put on this coat and flee to the furthest corner of the apartment, the kitchen, and grabbed the teapot, I guess for self-defense. Thank heavens it wasn’t a knife.”

Seattle Police Department and city officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

Police and Fire Department medics had been dispatched the afternoon of Nov. 22, 2020, to 3028 First Ave. on a “crisis call” of an intoxicated man who had broken a window and was throwing things into the street. While the responders were en route, dispatch updated the information to say a second caller had reported someone was being pushed out a window.

Officers arrived to find broken glass on the sidewalk but no one hurt. Medics and firefighters proceeded to the fourth floor of that address, where they contacted the man in crisis.

As more officers arrived, however, a second group entered what they apparently thought — based on later statements recorded by body cameras — was another entrance to 3028 First Ave., even though a sign on the door plainly noted a different address.

Five officers — including one armed with a high-caliber semi-automatic rifle — made their way to a fourth-floor unit matching the number shared by dispatch, knocked loudly, and announced themselves as police. Rehn can be heard on body camera footage saying, “What’s up? Who is it?” The officers knocked and announced again, then one of the officers, after several attempts, kicked the door open. The officers, guns up, entered the room as Rehn, clearly terrified and increasingly agitated, repeatedly asked what was happening.

According to reports filed by the officers named in the lawsuit — Riley Caulfield, Younghun Kim, Seth Wagner, John Duus and Jason Drummond — the officers entered the apartment without permission or a warrant because they believed the report of someone attempting to jump or push someone else out a fourth-floor window amounted to a life-threatening emergency.

Police can legally enter a structure without a warrant if there are “exigent circumstance” where someone’s life is in imminent danger or evidence is about to be destroyed.

“Since there were reports of someone attempting to jump out the window and/or someone possibly being pushed out the window, officers made exigent entry into the apartment believing that the subjects in the apartment were in danger and kicked the door open,” wrote Wagner in his report. “After entering, officers located a female inside but did not find a broken window or another person inside. Officers realized they had entered the wrong building.”

Krulewitch, Rehn’s attorney, questions the claim of exigency, noting that once officers had arrived on the scene they knew nobody had been pushed out of a window. The officers who entered the correct building contacted the man in crisis, who had broken a window, wounding himself.

The man and his wife were both taken to Harborview Medical Center. No criminal charges were filed, according to the reports.

“The officers involved and SPD, in general, deserve to be held accountable for their reckless and dangerous actions in this case,” Krulewitch said in a statement. “This is any citizen’s worst nightmare.”

Sgt. Dain Jones ultimately explained the circumstances to Rehn, who was shown in footage from the sergeant’s body camera weeping, cursing and shaking uncontrollably.

“I want to apologize for what happened here,” Jones said. “I know it was shocking and scary.”