A lawsuit filed by a Montgomery County, Maryland, firefighter claims police improperly raided his home in 2019 while carrying out a no-knock warrant and “terrorized” his family, including his 13-year-old daughter and his wife who was on in-home dialysis treatment and had a catheter in place at the time.
The lawsuit filed by Hernan Palma and his family claims the police wrongly raided their house to arrest the son of a tenant who rented out the basement.
The lawsuit claims that during the no-knock warrant, the police stormed the upstairs part of the family’s home early in the morning of Sept. 13, 2019 and beat Hernan, used excessive force against his wife and daughter, and caused an extreme amount of damage to their home.
“Montgomery County police terrorized an innocent family,” the family’s lawyer wrote in the May 5 lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland. The lawsuit seeks at least $2.5 million in damages.
Palma is a firefighter with the Montgomery County Fire Department who also works as an instructor at the Public Safety Training Academy. His wife, Lillian Palma, has battled kidney disease for several years.
The family had rented out the home’s downstairs basement since 2014, according to the lawsuit. The entrance to the basement apartment was separate from the entrance to Palma’s residence, and there was no access from the rented basement to the upstairs, according to the lawsuit.
The Palmas were never suspected of any wrongdoing. At the time police raided the Palmas’ house, they were looking for the son of the woman who rented the basement apartment, according to the lawsuit. That man, David Zelaya, 24, was suspected of drug and gun possession, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims that police had tracked the man for months and “consistently” noted the man using the basement entrance and Hernan Palma and his family used the upstairs front entrance.
However, in applying for the no-knock warrant, a police detective described it as a single-family home and didn’t disclose the Palma family also lived there, according to the lawsuit.
Hernan Palma thought the family was being robbed when he awoke to the sound of the front door being knocked down and saw masked men with guns running into his living room, according to the account laid out in the lawsuit. He said police did not identify themselves when they stuck a long-barreled rifle into his chest, punched him in the face, tackled him and stepped on him. The lawsuit claims officers pinned him down with such force “that his face cracked a wall.”
His wife and daughter were also handcuffed, and the lawsuit claims police ransacked the home for hours. Lilian Palma said officers restrained her so forcefully in her bed she feared the catheter in her shoulder “would be ripped out.”
One officer told Hernan Palma, “You’re lucky I didn’t pop you,” according to the lawsuit. Another told him, “You should be more careful who you rent your basement to,” the suit claims.
During the warrant, police also knocked down several doors, broke windows, and damaged walls. A police report quoted in the lawsuit acknowledges police themselves describing it as “an extreme amount of damage” to the home.
The lawsuit also claims the officers violated the department’s body camera policies by failing to record the full search. “Instead, they recorded only a short snippet of the events, and abruptly cut off the recording without citing any authorization to do so,” the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit names a number of defendants, including Montgomery County; the Montgomery County Police Department; Police Chief Marcus Jones; Det. Robert Farmer, who obtained the no-knock warrant; and more than two dozen other police officers who are listed in a department “raid report” as having participating in the search of the Palma’s house.
Scott Peterson, a spokesman for the Montgomery County government, told WTOP that the county could not comment on the lawsuit due to the pending litigation.
During a Montgomery County Public Safety committee hearing on July 9, 2020, Jones, the police chief, was asked about the raid on the Palma’s house.
Citing the pending litigation, Jones declined to discuss specifics, but he claimed, “There’s only one side of that case that the public has heard thus far, and I think it’s really unfair … There’s more facts than that case, that would, I think would clear the air.”
Officers ended up arresting Zelaya in the basement apartment on the morning of the raid and found drugs, bullets and steel-plated body armor in the rented basement bedroom, according to a report in The Washington Post, which cited court records. Zelaya later pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute synthetic hallucinogens and illegal possession of ammunition, The Post reported.
The Palma family’s lawsuit, however, claims police did not have probable cause to search the upstairs part of the house and should have known “there was a substantial risk that the Palmas would be harmed during a no-knock search of their home.”
“The Palmas were denied their constitutional rights by an overzealous police force,” said Thomas Connolly, of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP, the law firm representing the family, in a statement. “In filing this complaint, we hope to ensure that families in Montgomery County can rest assured that MCPD will properly train its officers on warrant applications and that no-knock warrants are treated as the law demands — as a rare exception and not the norm.”
In 2020, the Montgomery County Council unanimously voted, and the county executive signed into law, a bill limiting the use of no-knock warrants to crimes of violence.