By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A federal appeals court refused to hold members of the U.S. Marshals Service liable for raiding the home of an anti-abortion activist to enforce a money judgment favoring Planned Parenthood, but strongly criticized their tactics, saying they appeared aimed at stifling the activist's "repugnant" ideas.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati said the raid violated the Fourth Amendment rights of Michael Bray and his family. But it said deputy marshals Joel Kimmet and Chris Riley deserved "qualified immunity" because they could have reasonably believed at the time that their conduct was lawful.
In court papers, Bray had called his views "unpopular," but defended on moral and ethical grounds "the use of force to defend innocent human beings, born and unborn." He also said he has never advocated physical attacks on people who perform abortions, or damage to places where abortions are done.
Planned Parenthood had been seeking to collect an $850,000 judgment it had won against Bray in an Oregon case, and obtained a court order to seize assets from his home in Wilmington, Ohio.
According to Bray, armed law enforcement officers who wore flak jackets entered his home without warning on October 1, 2007. He claimed that he was forced to sit on a couch, unable to call a lawyer, during a four-hour search of the home, while a Planned Parenthood worker allegedly videotaped the interior.
The Brays settled with all defendants except the marshals, and a federal judge dismissed claims against them in November 2012.
Writing for a three-judge 6th Circuit panel, Circuit Judge John Rogers upheld that dismissal, saying it was not "clearly established" at the time of the raid that the Brays' rights against illegal searches and seizures were being violated.
But Rogers said the four-hour detention was unjustified, and that the seizure of "expressive materials of negligible market value" made it seem as though the raid were meant to intimidate the family and confiscate "disfavored" books and papers.
"If the facts alleged in the complaint are true, this case involves an incident that is more like home raids by Red Guards during China's Cultural Revolution than like what we should expect in the United States of America," the judge wrote.
"It is true that the debtor's ideas - that it is moral to take violent, illegal action to stop abortions - are repugnant," Rogers added. "But it is contrary to our fundamental norms to permit government-sanctioned attacks on the purveyance of ideas, even when those ideas are repugnant."
The U.S. Department of Justice, which defended the marshals before the 6th Circuit, had no immediate comment.
Thomas Condit, a lawyer for the Brays who has represented other anti-abortion activists, called the result "disappointing" and said he may appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The essence is that my clients' rights were violated, but they have no remedy," he said in a phone interview.
The case is Bray et al v. Planned Parenthood Columbia-Willamette Inc et al, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 12-4476.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)