Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Supreme Court grants qualified immunity in "knock and talk" police case

Are you aware of the "knock and talk' principle under Section 1983? This case alleges that the police violated the knock and talk rule by entering private property without a warrant and questioning the homeowners away from an area where visitors are normally expected to go. The property owners prevailed in the Third Circuit, but the Supreme Court reverses and grants the police officers qualified immunity.

The case is Carroll v. Carmen, decided on November 10. The Supreme Court issued this ruling without oral argument. The police heard that some guy had stolen a car and two loaded guns. and that he was the Carmen household. So they ventured into the property and wound up near a shed, into the backyard, where they asked the Carmens about the suspected felon. Under the knock and talk rule, the police can knock on private property without a warrant to ask questions, just as a private citizen might. Ruling in the Carmens' favor, the Third Circuit held that "the 'knock and talk' exception requires that police officers begin their encounter at the front door, where they have an implied invitation to go."

Whatever joy the Carmens felt in prevailing at the Third Circuit has been stripped away from them like that ground ball through Bill Buckner's legs during the 1986 World Series. The Supreme Court grants the officers qualified immunity, and the Carmens lose.

Qualified immunity applies when the civil rights violation was not clearly-established at the time of the incident. The law in this area was not clearly-established when the Carmens suffered the indignity of the police stepping deep into their property. Third Circuit precedent does not provide much guidance in this area. One case, Marasco, "held that an unsuccessful 'knock and talk' at the front door does not automatically allow officers to go onto other parts of the property. It did not hold, however, that knocking on the front door is required before officers go onto other parts of the property that are open to visitors." So, Marasco (and rulings from around the country) is not on point, the Supreme Court says. And if the Third Circuit precedent is not on point, then the officers did not have notice that they were violating the Constitution when they ventured onto the Carmens' property. Qualified immunity attaches, and the police win.

Interesting side note to this case. The Supreme Court has never identified the body of case law that governs the qualified immunity inquiry. It declines to do so here. It decides the case by assuming "for the sake argument that a controlling circuit precedent could constitute clearly established federal law" in the qualified immunity context. Might the Court someday decide that only Supreme Court precedent is relevant in deciding if the law is clearly-established? If that happens, it will probably expand qualified immunity for defendants, as there are far fewer Supreme Court rulings to choose from than Circuit court precedents. Something to ponder.


Anonymous said...

Were the Carmens claiming that they had suffered any kind of damages as a result of what the police officers did?

Second Circuit Civil Rights Blog said...

If they are claiming damages, it is not apparent from the Supreme Court ruling.