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Family sues cop for forced entry into home

An Orchard Park, N.Y., family has filed a civil-rights lawsuit against a local police officer, Lt. Joseph Buccilli, for barging into the family’s home without either a search warrant or permission.

There was no emergency, as the officer reportedly had responded to the house on an anonymous call asking about the welfare of Fred Puntoriero, who suffered dementia and was living with his daughter, LuAnn Batt, and her husband, Timothy.

The case was filed by attorneys connected to the Home School Legal Defense Association, which normally focuses on homeschooling issues. However, the group takes on cases when there are constitutional issues at risk that affect homeschooling families, and one of those issues is the integrity of the family home.

The lawsuit explains that because of Puntoriero’s dementia and other age-related infirmities, he never was left alone. It was in April that Joseph Batt, 23, the grandson of Fred Puntoriero, was with his grandfather, who was visited several times a week by a registered nurse as well as a home health aide.

Shortly after LuAnn Batt had argued with her brother about her father’s property, “Upon information and belief, on Tuesday, April 17, 2012, a worker from the Erie County Department of Social Services received a false report regarding the welfare of Mr. Puntoriero.”

The grandson shortly later noticed two police officers “leaning against their cars” and talking in the family home’s driveway with “no sense of urgency in their demeanor.”

When he approached the officers and asked what they needed, Buccilli “demanded that Joseph show him a driver’s license” and provide his name and birth date.

Buccilli said he’d been asked to meet a social worker there, and Joseph Batt told him that his grandfather had been seen just hours earlier by a nurse’s aide and was fine.

The policeman demanded to enter the home and threatened Joseph that he would enter with or without permission and with or without a warrant.

Buccilli threatened the man with arrest.

When Joseph said he wanted to call his older brother, who is in law enforcement, Buccilli threatened again to arrest him.

When Joseph went into the home to make the call, he told the officers, “Please don’t come in, I am making a private call. You do not have permission to come in.”

But Buccilli “put his foot in the way, forced the door open, and stepped inside,” according to the complaint.

A social worker arrived a short time later, spent a few minutes there, and left, saying things were fine. As he was leaving, Buccilli stated he would be back inside the home if he needed to be, and scolded Joseph that he should not “pretend to know the law.”

The actions of the officer, entering the home “without a warrant, probable cause, or exigent circumstances,” violated the family’s Fourth Amendment right to be secure against unreasonable searches, the complaint said.

HSLDA Senior Counsel James R. Mason profiled the case, filed just days ago, in his online column.

“Here is what we do know: the Fourth Amendment does not permit the police to enter anyone’s home without a warrant unless there is a real emergency – even if it’s called a ‘welfare check,'” he wrote.

He said the family, longtime HSLDA members, holds the rule of law in high regard.

“They understand that police must respect citizens’ rights, and that when they don’t, they should be held to account,” he wrote.

“In the early days of the homeschool movement, homeschooling was (wrongly) assumed to be illegal in many states,” he continued. “Homeschooling as an educational option was not as well-known as it is now, and far fewer children were being homeschooled back then.

“Too often, early homeschoolers found an investigative social worker at their front door, often accompanied by uniformed police officers. These authorities were typically investigating anonymous tips that didn’t have much to do with homeschooling itself – often something like this: ‘The children are always home, they don’t go to school, and the family seems really religious.’

“Homeschoolers soon learned that front-door encounters with an investigative social worker could be traumatic for both parents and children alike. Protecting our member families from such unwarranted investigations was what drew HSLDA into what we call ‘the battle for the front door’ – defending Fourth Amendment rights,” he said.

“Now, as many homeschooling families are beginning to care for aging relatives, we are seeing new challenges in the battle for the front door.”

The action seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as costs and fees.