Thursday, February 23, 2012

Unconstitutional Warrants and Officers' Liability

On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court issued three decisions. One of these decisions, Messerschmidt v. Millender, dealt with an officer’s liability for seizing property based on allegedly unconstitutional warrant. In this case, the Supreme Court held that the officers could not be sued for seizing property under such a warrant.

This case arose from a 2003 search of Augusta Millender’s home; the officers were searching for Ms. Millender’s foster son and/or a shotgun used in a domestic assault. Police did seize a handgun owned by Ms. Millender, which she claimed was hers and was used strictly for personal defense. Later, a court ruled the search warrant unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment as “the warrant improperly allowed the police to search for ‘all handguns, shotguns and rifles’ and “evidence showing street gang membership.”

However, on Wednesday, the Court ruled that Ms. Millender could not hold the officers liable for the search, even under a warrant later found to be unconstitutional, by relying on the 1986 Supreme Court ruling in Malley v. Briggs; in this case, the Court held that officers in these situations should not be granted immunity from lawsuits such as this “only where the warrant application is so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence unreasonable.” In the most recent case, Justice Roberts held that Ms. Millender’s case did not fall under this exception.

Justices Kagan, Sotomayor and Ginsberg dissented. Justice Kagan wrote that she felt the search for guns was proper, but felt that the search for gang-related evidence (per the search warrant in question) was not connected to the initial incident that gave rise to the warrant. Justice Sotomayor strongly disagreed that the officers’ actions were objectively reasonable. She wrote, “It bears repeating that the founders adopted the Fourth Amendment to protect against searches for evidence of unspecified crimes, and merely possessing other firearms is not a crime at all.” The fact that the officer’s superiors and a judge approved a warrant did not sway her opinion in the least.

The need to protect officers from liability is understandable. If officers are constantly worried about what they will and won’t be held liable for seizing under an apparently valid warrant, then they may easily overlook crucial evidence or fail to seize it “just in case”. Officers must be protected so that they can go about doing their job efficiently and effectively. The officers executing the warrant should be able to rely on their superiors and the judge issuing the warrant.

Perhaps the real issue in this case is determining how this warrant was issued with the questionable language to begin with. “Evidence showing street gang membership” without further explanation is overly broad and can lead to many items being seized by police. Also, this warrant was issued base on a domestic assault complaint; the warrant in question should have been limited to searching for evidence based on that complaint. Not only did this language cause the warrant to fail under Fourth Amendment scrutiny, but it also required the officers to execute judgment calls and seize items they should not have.

For the article from the New York Times, click here.

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