Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Suicide note was in "plain view"

The Court of Appeals grants summary judgment to police officers who seized a suicide note that was in plain view after the entered the house following a 911 call. Even if the police could have handled things better, they are entitled to qualified immunity because they did not violate clearly established law.

The case is Veeder v Nutting, a summary order decided on December 15. Under the "plian view" rule, the police can take things without a warrant if the police ha a right to be there and the items are literally in plain view, i.e., laying on the kitchen table or on the dashboard. the polkice had the right to be in the Veeder home after someone called 911 because of a self-inflicted hanging. A women inside the house told the police that the manila folder she was holding contained the suicide note and that she was going to read it in front of them. "Under the circumstances, defendants had probable cause to believe that the manila folder contained suicide notes," the Court of Appeals (Cabranes, Wesley and Hall) says.

Plaintiffs brought this action because the law generally confers upon you a privacy interest in letters and other sealed packages delivered through the mail. But the Second Circuit cannot identify any clearly established case law that says "the police may not subsequently read a person's private papers, the text of which is not in plain view, that have lawfully been seized under the plain view doctrine." Since the state of the law was not clear at the time, the police get qualified immunity and plaintiffs cannot sue them for damages.

The police could have gotten a warrant, the Court of Appeals says, but that does not affect their entitlement to qualified immunity. Left unsaid in this decision is why the police wanted the note. The district court ruling suggests the police treated the home as a potential crime scene. A quick Google Scholar search turns up a worker's compensation decision relating to this case, suggesting that the suicide grew out of a work-related problem (the decedent worked for the state police). That decision reads:

Decedent had been employed as a forensic scientist for approximately 31 years by the employer. In April 2008, the forensic lab where decedent worked underwent a reaccreditation process, during the course of which an audit uncovered an inconsistency in the fiber proficiency tests that were regularly performed by decedent. An investigation into the issue was commenced by the employer and, over the course of three days, several meetings were held between decedent and his supervisors to discuss the inconsistencies in the test results. After decedent advised his supervisors that he had skipped a step in the fiber test analysis procedure and, therefore, was noncompliant in performing the test, a "nonconforming work inquiry" was initiated by the employer. Decedent subsequently stopped going to work and weeks later, on May 23, 2008, committed suicide.
A few words on qualified immunity, which bear repeating. The Constitution protects certain rights which may be enforced in court, but if the case law interpreting those provisions is not clear at the time of the violation, then the defendants cannot be sued for damages. This means that only the truly incompetent may be sued in Section 1983 cases. Public officials are presumed to know about binding case law (whether they actually do or not). When the state of the law is fuzzy, then these abstract rights get you nowhere in court.

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