Groh v. Ramirez

RESPONDENT:Joseph R. Ramirez, et al.
LOCATION:Polk County Courthouse

DOCKET NO.: 02-811
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 540 US 551 (2004)
GRANTED: Mar 03, 2003
ARGUED: Nov 04, 2003
DECIDED: Feb 24, 2004

Austin C. Schlick – argued the cause for Petitioner, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae
Richard A. Cordray – argued the cause for Petitioner
Vincent J. Kozakiewicz – on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

Jeff Groh, a special agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, applied for a search warrant to search the Ramirez ranch for illegal weapons. On the warrant, Groh mistakenly omitted the exact items sought (though he correctly listed the items on the application itself). A federal magistrate issued the warrant.

The Ramirezes later sued Groh and the law enforcement officers involved in the search in federal court for violating their Fourth Amendment rights. They argued that the incorrectly completed warrant violated the Fourth Amendment requirement that any items searched for be described in the warrant.

The district court ruled that no constitutional violation took place. The officers, the court held, retained “qualified immunity” – meaning they are legally immune while doing their jobs unless they violate a “clearly established” constitutional right.

A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel reversed. The court held that the warrant violated the Fourth Amendment and that Groh is not immune to lawsuit because he was personally responsible for using the warrant.


If law enforcement officers use a search warrant that does not describe the items sought but is approved by a magistrate judge (and the items sought are described in the application for the warrant), does the search violate the Fourth’s Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures? If such a search is unconstitutional, can law enforcement officers be sued for executing the warrants, despite the fact that no court had previously held such a search unconstitutional?

Media for Groh v. Ramirez

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 04, 2003 in Groh v. Ramirez

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – February 24, 2004 in Groh v. Ramirez

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 02-811 Groh against Ramirez will be announced by Justice Stevens.

John Paul Stevens:

Petitioner is a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.

In February of 1997, a concerned citizen informed petitioner that he had seen a stockpile of weaponry including an automatic riffle, grenades, and a grenade launcher on a visit to respondent’s ranch in Montana.

Based on that information, petitioner prepared and signed an application for a warrant to search the ranch.

The application stated that the search was for specified weapons, explosives, and receipts and was accompanied with detailed affidavit which petitioner also prepared and executed.

Petitioner took the application and affidavit to a Magistrate along with a warrant form that petitioner had also prepared.

The Magistrate signed the warrant for him and authorized the search.

The warrant form that petitioner had prepared did not identify any of the items that he intended to seize.

In the portion of the form that called for a description of these items, petitioner typed the description of respondent’s two-story blue house, instead of describing the alleged stockpile of firearms.

Nor did the warrant incorporate by reference the itemized list contained in the application.

The next day, petitioner led a team of law enforcement officers in executing the search warrant. but the search found no illegal weapons or explosives.

When the officers left the ranch petitioner gave respondents a copy of the warrant, but not a copy of the application which had been sealed.

Respondent sued petitioner and the other officers claiming, among other things, a violation of the Fourth amendment.

The Federal District Court entered summary judgment for all the defendants finding no such violation.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed as to the Fourth Amendment claim against petitioner, and the court held that the warrant was invalid and that petitioner was not protected by qualified immunity.

We granted certiorari and now affirm.

The warrant was plainly invalid.

The Fourth Amendment, an MB usually requires that search warrants that serch warrants particularly describe “the place to be searched and the person and things to be seized.”

The warrant failed this particularity requirement all together because it provided no description whatsoever, the persons and things to be seized.

The fact that the application adequately describe the evidence sought does not save the warrant from its facial invalidity.

The constitution requires particularity in the warrant itself and Fourth Amendment interests are not necessarily vindicated when some other document that is not in the possession of the officers, there is something about the objects of the search, but the contents of that document are neither known to the person whose home is being searched nor available for her inspection.

Despite the warrant’s invalidity, petitioner argues that the search nonetheless was reasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

We disagree because the warrant did not describe the items to be searched at all.

It was so obviously deficient that we must treat the search as warrantless within the meaning of our case law and warrantless searches at the home are presumptively unreasonable.

Petitioner cannot overcome that presumption although, the scope of his search did not exceed the limits set forth in the application.

Unless the particular items described in the affidavit are also set forth in the warrant itself, there can be no written assurance that the Magistrate actually found probable cause to search for and to seize every item mentioned in the affidavit.

Moreover, petitioner’s omission undermine we have long recognized to be one of the particularity requirements chief goals, assuring the individual whose property is searched or seized that the lawful authority of the executive officer and the limits of his power to search.

Having concluded that a constitutional violation occurred, we further hold as did the Court of Appeals that petitioner is not entitled to qualified immunity.

Given that the particularity requirement is set forth in the constitution’s text, no reasonable officer could believe that a warrant that totally failed to comply with that requirement was valid.

Because petitioner was the person who prepared the invalid one, he may not argue that he reasonably relied on the Magistrate’s assurance that the warrant contained an adequate description of the things to be seized.

John Paul Stevens:

Even a cursory reading of the warrant would have revealed a glaring deficiency that any reasonable police officer would have known was constitutionally failed.

Justice Kennedy has filed an opinion in which the Chief Justice has joined dissenting from our holding on the qualified immunity issue.

Justice Thomas filed an opinion dissenting from my interpretation of the Fourth Amendment and also from the qualified immunity holding.

Justice Scalia has joined all of that opinion and the Chief Justice has joined part three of that opinion.