February 22, 2012

Supreme Court Decides Messerschmidt v. Millender

On February 22, 2012, the Supreme Court decided Messerschmidt v. Millender, No. 10-704, holding that police officers were entitled to qualified immunity under the circumstances of their search for firearms and gang-related material at a private home.

Detective Curt Messerschmidt, along with  other officers of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, conducted a search of the home of Augusta Millender pursuant to a court-approved warrant. The warrant authorized a search for all guns and gang-related material in connection with the investigation of a known gang member, Jerry Ray Bowen, for shooting at his ex-friend with a black pistol-gripped sawed-off shotgun because she had "call[ed] the cops" on him. Millender was Bowen's former foster mother, and the officers had reason to believe he might be staying at her home. The forced-entry nighttime search did not find Bowen but resulted in the seizure of Millender's own shotgun, a box of .45-caliber ammunition, and a California Social Services letter addressed to Bowen.

Millender and her daughter and grandson sued the officers in federal court for violation of their civil rights, alleging that the warrant was invalid under the Fourth Amendment because it was overbroad in two respects. First, it covered all firearms, but Bowen's specified crime was a physical assault with "a very specific weapon." Second, the crime was a domestic assault and there "was no evidence that the crime at issue was gang-related." The lower courts agreed with the Millenders. The district court granted summary judgment in their favor, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed en banc.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because "[e]ven if the warrant in this case were invalid, it was not so obviously lacking in probable cause that the officers can be considered ‘plainly incompetent' for concluding otherwise." The officers had secured approvals of the warrant and supporting applications from their superior, from a deputy district attorney, and from a neutral magistrate, and the Court held that this fact – although not conclusive on the question of belief in the validity of the warrant – was "certainly pertinent in assessing whether they could have held a reasonable belief that the warrant was supported by probable cause."

The Court's discussion of the plausible validity of the warrant and objective reasonableness of the officers' conduct is heavily fact-specific, while reflecting an immunity-friendly approach that dissenting Justice Sotomayor characterized as "akin to a rational-basis test" that "justif[ies] the officers' actions on reasons of its own invention … [and] ignores the reasons the officers actually gave, as well as the facts upon which the case was decided below."

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, and Alito joined. Justice Breyer filed a concurring opinion. Justice Kagan filed an opinion concurring in part (as to the firearms search) and dissenting in part (as to the gang-material search). Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Ginsburg joined.

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