Messerschmidt v. Millender

PETITIONER:Curt Messerschmidt, et al.
RESPONDENT:Augusta Millender, et al.
LOCATION: Residence of Jerry Bowen’s foster mother

DOCKET NO.: 10-704
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 565 US (2012)
GRANTED: Jun 27, 2011
ARGUED: Dec 05, 2011
DECIDED: Feb 22, 2012

ADVOCATES:
Paul R. Q. Wolfson – for the respondents
Paul Rq Wolfson – on behalf of the respondents
Sri Srinivasan – Principal Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioners
Timothy T. Coates – for the petitioners

Facts of the case

Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Curt Messerschmidt prepared an affidavit in support of a search warrant for the residence of Jerry Bowen’s foster mother. Bowen was suspected of assaulting his former girlfriend with a sawed-off shotgun. The affidavit requested a night search because Bowen had gang ties, so that a surprise search at night would be safer for the community and the personnel serving the search warrant. The warrant was reviewed by a sergeant, a police lieutenant and a deputy district attorney before it was presented to, and signed by, a judge. Officers executed the warrant in the early morning hours. The homeowner, Augusta Millender, and her family responded by filing suit under for alleged violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, for conspiracy to deprive them of their civil rights based on race, and for related state-law claims.

The district court found the warrant valid, Messerchmidt’s conduct reasonable and that probable cause existed to believe that Bowen was at the residence and that nighttime service was appropriate. As to the scope of the warrant, however, the district court found it overbroad. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated the district court order and remanded the action with directions. The court held that law enforcement officers were entitled to qualified immunity where they reasonably relied on a deputy attorney general and a judge to restrict an overbroad search warrant’s scope to items supported by probable cause.

Question

Are police officers entitled to qualified immunity when they obtain a valid warrant to search for firearms, firearm-related materials, and gang-related items in the residence of a gang member and felon who had threatened to kill his girlfriend and fired a sawed-off shotgun at her?

Media for Messerschmidt v. Millender

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 05, 2011 in Messerschmidt v. Millender

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – February 22, 2012 in Messerschmidt v. Millender

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

I have our opinion this morning in case 10-704, Messerschmidt versus Millender.

Shelly Kelly decided to break off her romantic relationship with Jerry Ray Bowen and moved out her apartment to which Bowen had a key.

Bowen had assaulted Kelly before, was an active gang member, and had an extensive history of involvement in violent and firearms crimes.

Fearing an attack from Bowen, Kelly asked officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to accompany here while she gathered her things.

Deputies from the Sheriff’s Department came to assist Kelly, but were called away to respond to an emergency before the move was complete.

As soon as the officers left, an enraged Bowen appeared at the bottom of the stairs to the apartment, yelling “I told you never to call the cops on me.”

Bowen charged up the stairs, grabbed Kelly and tried to throw her over the railing of the second-story landing.

When Kelly successfully resisted, Bowen bit her on the shoulder and attempted to drag her inside the apartment by her hair.

She was able to break free and ran to her car.

As Kelly got into here car, Bowen stepped out of the apartment armed with a pistol grip sawed-off shotgun.

He ran in front car, pointed the shotgun at Kelly and said, “If you try to leave, I’ll kill you.”

Kelly ducked behind the dashboards, slammed the gas pedal and sped away.

Bowen fired five shots at the car blowing out the left front tire but Kelly made good her escape.

She quickly located police officers and reported the attack.

They returned to the apartment, but by then Bowen had fled.

Detective Curt Messerschmidt was assigned to investigate the assault.

He prepared an application for a warrant to search the resident of — residence of Bowen’s foster mother, Augusta Millender, where Kelly said Bowen might be hiding.

The warrant sought authorization to search for all firearms and ammunition, as well as evidence of gang membership.

The warrant application was accompanied by affidavits detailing the facts of the attack and Messerschmidt’s extensive experience with gang related crimes.

Before submitting the warrants to a magistrate, Messerschmidt had them reviewed, first by Sergeant Robert Lawrence then by a police lieutenant and finally, by deputy district attorney.

After receiving their approvals, Messerschmidt submitted the warrant application to a magistrate who issued the warrant without modification.

The ensuing search, however, revealed only a shotgun owned by the 73-year-old Millender, a California Social Services letter addressed to Bowen, and a box of .45-caliber ammunition.

Millender sued Messerschmidt and Lawrence claiming that the officers had subjected them to an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Millender’s claimed that the warrant was to too broad in authorizing a search for all firearms when the officers knew only about a sawed-off shotgun and the authorizing a search for evidence of gang membership when the crime was simply a domestic dispute.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the Millenders and concluded that the officers could be held personally liable for money damages because any reasonable officer would have known that the warrant was unconstitutional.

For reasons explained more fully in our opinion filed today, we reverse.

There’s a doctrine in our cases called qualified immunity which protects government officials from lawsuits when they make reasonable, but mistaken judgments.

It gives government officials breathing room to act and our cases have said that it protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”

In this case, Messerschmidt and Lawrence searched the Millenders’ home under a warrant issued by a neutral magistrate.

The fact that a neutral magistrate has issued a warrant is the clearest indication that the officers acted reasonably and normally is enough to protect the officers from suit, normally but not always.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Our precedence have recognized an exception allowing suit when again “it is obvious that no reasonably competent officer would have concluded that a warrant should issue.”

The “shield of immunity” otherwise conferred by the warrant will be lost, we have said, where the warrant was “based on an affidavit so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence entirely unreasonable.”

This case does not fall within that narrow exception.

Now, we do not decide whether this warrant was overbroad in authorizing a search for all guns when there was information only about a specific one.

That specific one was a pistol grip sawed-off shotgun, owned by a known gang member, who had just fired the weapon five times in public in an attempt to murder another person because she had “called the cops” on him.

Even if the warrant were overbroad, it would not have been entirely unreasonable for an officer to conclude that someone who owned a pistol grip sawed-off shotgun might own other illegal guns or that seizure of the weapons was necessary to prevent further attacks on Kelly.

Now, with respect to the warrant’s authorization to search for evidence of gang membership, we do not think it would be again “entirely unreasonable for an officer to view this episode as not simply a domestic dispute.”

In the affidavit he submitted in support of the warrant, Messerschmidt described the crime as “a spousal assault and an assault with a deadly weapon.”

And Bowen who is a known member of Mona Park Crips Gang had attacked Kelly after becoming enraged that she had called the cops on him.

A reasonable officer could view the attack as motivated not just by the souring of Bowen’s romantic relationship with Kelly but also by a desire to prevent her from disclosing details of his gang activity to the police.

And a reasonable officer could conclude that evidence of Bowen’s gang membership could help establish a motive for the attack, support related charges such as witness intimidation that could be brought against Bowen, demonstrate that Bowen had familiarity with sawed-off shotguns or tie him to other evidence found at the residence.

Now, on top of all this the officers sought and obtained approval of the warrant application from the superior officer and a deputy district attorney before submitting it to the magistrate.

The statements in the warrant were true.

The officers thus “took every step that could reasonably be expected of them.”

To conclude that no reasonable officer could believe that the warrant was supported by probable cause would mean not only that Messerschmidt and Lawrence were plainly incompetent, but that their supervisor, the deputy district attorney, and the magistrate were as well.

So, even if the warrant in this case were invalid, it was not so obviously lacking in probable cause that the officers can be considered plainly incompetent for concluding otherwise.

The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit denying qualified immunity to the officers is reversed.

Justice Breyer has filed a concurring opinion.

Justice Kagan has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

Justice Sotomayor has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Ginsburg has joined.