Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Qualified immunity for police officer who chased after suspect onto bystander's property

Qualified immunity throws a cold blanket on your great case, that's for sure. Even if the public defendant technically violated the law, he cannot be sued if the case law was unclear at the time of the civil rights violation. The Supreme Court reminds us of this principle in a case that was so clear to them that they ruled upon without oral argument.

The case is Stanton v. Sims, decided on November 4. The fun started when the police showed up in the middle of the night because of an "unknown disturbance" involving someone with a baseball bat. One of the guys on the scene, Nicholas Patrick, ran away when officer Stanton yelled out "Police!" Violating that police order, Patrick instead ran into a fenced-in yard owned by Drendolyn Sims, who was smacked in the forehead when Stanton kicked in the gate in pursuit of Patrick, who had committed a jailable offense in ignoring the lawful police order to stop.

Sims sued Stanton. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said that Sims has a case under the Fourth Amendment, and that Stanton was not entitled to the warrantless entry into her property because Sims had an expectation of privacy on her property. Also, there was no immediate danger and Patrick had only committed a minor offense in running away from the police. Stanton filed a petition for Supreme Court review.

Let's talk about Supreme Court practice for a minute. Everyone wants their case heard in the Supreme Court. Arguing in that Court is like playing center field for the Yankees in the World Series, or filling in for Ringo Starr when the Beatles toured Australia. But a certiorari petition costs a lot of money because the Court wants the petition printed up professionally, and the attorney time devoted to convincing the justices that your case stands out among the 7,000 annual petitions is enormous. The Court only hears about 75 arguments a year, so the odds make it quite unlikely that your time and money will be put to good use. Still, the Court has to hear someone's case, right? They took this case, but they also decided it without oral argument. So, no glory for Stanton's attorney who wanted to argue in the Supreme Court, but counsel wins the case on the strength of the certiorari petition, so it's not a total bust.

The Supreme Court says that "federal and state courts nationwide are sharply divided on the question whether an officer with probable cause to arrest a suspect for a misdemeanor may enter a home without a warrant while in hot pursuit of of that suspect." The Court then cites contrary state and federal rulings on this issue, and it does not even think Supreme Court or pre-existing Ninth Circuit precedent is directly on point, so the Ninth Circuit ruling in this case is vacated on qualified immunity grounds.

Astute readers will notice that the Supreme Court does not limit its "clearly established law" analysis to Supreme Court or Ninth Circuit rulings. If you practice in the Second Circuit, you try to find other cases from the Second Circuit to show the law was clearly established. But the Supreme Court has never conclusively held what body of case law to draw from in determining whether the law was clearly established at the time of the alleged constitutional violation. Here, the Court implies that the universe of relevant court rulings is nationwide. If that is the case (and the Court does not squarely hold this is the right approach), then it certainly makes it easier for public defendants to win qualified immunity.

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