Thursday, February 11, 2021

Junkyard in the backyard allows the police to enter the property without a warrant

Another case lost to qualified immunity. The police entered plaintiff's residential property without a warrant because they had a backyard filled with things the plaintiffs had recovered from foreclosed property and were keeping for sale. The district court allowed the case to proceed even though the police argued that qualified immunity must attach because they acted reasonably at the time and they thought the plaintiffs were operating an unsafe junkyard. The Court of Appeals (Livingston, Lynch and Cabranes) reverses, immunity attaches, and the case is over.

The case is Williams v. Galligan, a summary order issued on February 3. I know from experience that people are usually enraged when the police step foot on their property without a warrant. But as the Grateful Dead once said, "If you got a warrant, I guess your gonna come in." That lyric may be true, but what about warrantless property entries? Can't the police take the time to get a warrant in the first instance, especially when they are dealing with a possible junkyard when there is no one on the property who is in imminent danger (for which there is no time for a warrant)? 
The district court ruling tells us what the property looked like: "Their alleged personal property included “broken and sharp pieces of metal and wood, a rusted x-ray machine, broken household appliances and tools, various pieces of other appliances and tools, broken pieces of furniture, old car tires, pesticides, flammable oils, a dilapidated camping trailer, and miscellaneous other efuse” that occupied curbside space and space in the front, back, and side yards."

Qualified immunity protects police officers when the civil rights violation was not clearly-established at the time. We know what's clearly-established from the pre-existing case law. Plaintiff has to find a binding case from his jurisdiction that is close to his own case so that the police were on constructive notice that they were violating the Constitution. That is not as easy as it sounds. Courts want a close match in this regard, and the courts have been tightening up that standard over the years. Any plaintiffs' civil rights lawyer will tell you this. 

The police can also get immunity if they are enforcing a law that's already on the books. That's this case. Plaintiff loses this case on appeal because the town's anti-blight law allowed the police to take immediate action if conditions created an immediate danger to the health, safety and welfare of the town. The Court does not opine on the law's constitutionality but it notes the law resembles the well-established exigent exception to the Fourth Amendment that the Supreme Court has already recognized. In addition, the Court said, the warrantless entry was not clearly unlawful since a reasonable police officer could have seen the backyard as a junkyard, as they "kept a variety of unusual objects" there. 

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