Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Supreme Court Finds Qualified Immunity in Police Chase Case
Panel Overrules Ninth Circuit, Which Would Have Allowed Homeowner to Sue La Mesa Officer
By JUSTIN LEVINE, Staff Writer
A police officer in San Diego County did not violate clearly established law by entering an enclosed residential yard without a warrant while pursuing a suspect wanted on a misdemeanor charge, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a unanimous, per curiam opinion, the court said the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was wrong to deny the La Mesa officer, Mike Stanton, qualified immunity in a suit by local resident Drendolyn Sims.
Sims alleged that Stanton violated her Fourth Amendment rights by coming onto her property after he and his partner responded to a call regarding a disturbance involving a person with a baseball bat in a neighborhood reportedly known for gang violence.
While approaching the area where the disturbance had been reported, Stanton saw three men walking in the street. Upon seeing the officers, two of the men turned directions into a nearby apartment complex while a third, Nicholas Patrick, quickly made towards Sims’ residence.
Stanton later testified that he considered the men’s behavior suspicious, exited his police vehicle, identified himself as an officer and ordered Patrick to stop. Stanton said Patrick looked directly at him, but ignored his order to stop and quickly went through the front gate of a tall wooden fence that enclosed Sims’ yard.
While in pursuit of Patrick, Stanton kicked the gate door open, striking Sims, who was standing behind the gate at the time. Sims suffered a cut forehead and injured shoulder when the gate struck her, and claimed in her complaint that Stanton’s actions constituted an unreasonable search.
The Ninth Circuit held that Stanton’s warrantless entry was unconstitutional and that he was not entitled to qualified immunity. The panel said it was established law that a warrantless entry into a home is not justified in pursuing a suspected misdemeanant “except in the rarest of circumstances.”
The Supreme Court, without resolving the question of whether Stanton committed a constitutional violation when he entered Sims’ property, said the law was sufficiently unsettled for the officer to claim qualified immunity.
The justices explained:
“There is no suggestion in this case that Officer Stanton knowingly violated the Constitution; the question is whether, in light of precedent existing at the time, he was ‘plainly incompetent’ in entering Sims’ yard to pursue the fleeing Patrick…The Ninth Circuit concluded that he was. It did so despite the fact that federal and state courts nationwide are sharply divided on the question whether an officer with probable cause to arrest a suspect for a misdemeanor may enter a home without a warrant while in hot pursuit of that suspect.”
While the high court noted that precedent allows warrantless entries by officers in hot pursuit of a fleeing felon, it said there was no “categorical rule” for cases involving misdemeanors or minor offenses. It cited two opinions of the California Court of Appeal as affirmatively authorizing Stanton’s actions.
The court went on to say:
“It is especially troubling that the Ninth Circuit would conclude that Stanton was plainly incompetent—and subject to personal liability for damages—based on actions that were lawful according to courts in the jurisdiction where he acted.”
The case is Stanton v. Sims, 12–1217.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company