In an important and sure to be controversial decision yesterday, the Supreme Court held that police officers maintain their qualified immunity, even when a search is invalid, so long as their actions are not objectively unreasonable. (full opinion here)
This California case involved the search of a grandmother's home for proof of a weapon alleged to be possessed by Bowen, her grandson, a reputed gang member. A federal district court found that the police search was unreasonable and the warrant invalid. A civil suit was brought against the officers in federal court that sought money damages for the alleged constitutional violations. In ending the matter, the Supreme Court found that the officers were and are protected from civil suit under the doctrine of qualified immunity.
The Court held: Qualified immunity “protects government officials ‘from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’ Where the alleged Fourth Amendment violation involves a search or pursuant to a warrant, the fact that a neutral magistrate has issued a warrant is the clearest indication that the officers acted in an objectively reasonable manner, or in “objective good faith. Nonetheless, that fact does not end the inquiry into objective reasonableness. The Court has recognized an exception allowing suit when “it is obvious that no reasonably competent officer would have concluded that a warrant should issue.”
The “shield of immunity” otherwise conferred by the warrant, will be lost, for example, where the warrant was “based on an affidavit so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence entirely unreasonable. The threshold for establishing this exception is high. “[I]n the ordinary case, an officer cannot be expected to question the magistrate’s probable-cause determination” because “[i]t is the magistrate’s responsibility to determine whether the officer’s allegations establish probable cause and, if so, to issue a warrant comporting in form with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment.”
The Court further stated: This case does not fall within that narrow exception. It would not be entirely unreasonable for an officer to believe that there was probable cause to search for all firearms and firearm-related materials. Under the circumstances set forth in the warrant, an officer could reasonably conclude that there was a “fair probability” that the sawed-off shotgun was not the only firearm Bowen owned, and that Bowen’s sawed-off shotgun was illegal. Given Bowen’s possession of one illegal gun, his gang membership, willingness to use the gun to kill someone, and concern about the police, it would not be unreasonable for an officer to conclude that Bowen owned other illegal guns.
An officer also could reasonably believe that seizure of firearms was necessary to prevent further assaults on Kelly. California law allows a magistrate to issue a search warrant for items “in the possession of any person with the intent to use them as a means of committing a public offense,” and the warrant application submitted by the officers specific referenced this provision as a basis for the search.