The case is Simon v. City of New York, decided on June 21. Simon was picked up by the police under the material witness statute, which allows law enforcement upon a court order to detain an important witness who is not responsive to a trial subpoena. The material witness is brought to court, which then decides of the witness can be held against her will for these purposes. In this case, Simon was deemed a material witness in an insurance fraud case against a police officer. After the police got ahold of Simon under the material witness statute, they intermittently held her for 18 hours over the course of several days. During that time, the police questioned her about the insurance fraud case, but it does appear that she went before a judge to see if she was properly held as a material witness. (The defendants claim Simon voluntarily spent this time with the police).
Qualified immunity has come under attack lately just as the Supreme Court has been vigorously granting it to law enforcement in excessive force and other police misconduct cases. This immunity allows defendants to avoid litigation in money damages cases when the state of the case law is not clearly-established at the time of the constitutional violation. What is clearly-established is in the eye of the beholder, but some Supreme Court justices and scholars are wondering if the Court is letting too many officers off the hook in these cases. In June 2018, the Second Circuit denied qualified immunity to officers who were accused to using a high-volume sound device to disperse peaceful protesters. That was newsworthy, as the Second Circuit is also quick to apply qualified immunity. That case, Edrei v. Bratton, was written by Chief Judge Katzmann, who also writes the Simon material witness case. What's it all mean? Is the Second Circuit pushing back on qualified immunity? If so, will the Supreme Court let the Second Circuit get away with it?
In this case, the Court of Appeals says the officers violated the Fourth Amendment because they detailed her for 10 hours on August 11, 2008 in violation of the material witness warrant that required them to produce her to court that morning. Material witnesses enjoy the rights that are extended to criminal suspects, particularly since they have not been accused of anything. In addition, "a seizure conducted pursuant to an arrest warrant must conform to the terms of that warrant." Also, the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness requirement ensures reasonableness "in the manner and scope of searches and seizures that are carried out." And, logically, to exceed the scope of the warrant is like acting without a warrant at all, the Court says. So here is the rule the Second Circuit sets forth:
Police officers must abide by the limitations set forth on the face of a warrant they are executing. A warrant must be executed reasonably; a warrant generally authorizes only what its terms expressly provide; and a warrant’s execution terms represent the magistrate’s neutral determination of how a warrant is to be executed. A seizure that flouts the plain terms of its authorizing instrument is therefore unreasonable.Turning to qualified immunity, the Court asks whether the law clearly held in 2008 that Simon's rights were violated. There is a line of qualified immunity cases that hold that even if there is no case right on point, the law was clearly-established if it's an "obvious" case, that is, any police officer would know he was violated the law simply because what he's doing is sufficiently off-the[-wall to violate the Constitution. As the Seventh Circuit once stated, "the easiest cases don't arise." While few decisions have squarely resolved this issue, the officers violated the plain terms of the warrant and detained plaintiff against her will. The same analysis holds true for the detention that took place on August 12, when plaintiff was detained for another eight hours against her will. While the police claim Simon showed up that day voluntarily, the record shows that, after the 10-hour detention ended on August 11, 2008, the police allowed her to go home but told her they had a warrant for her arrest and that she had to come back the next day.