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Supreme Court rules officers entitled to qualified immunity on defective warrants

The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled 6-3 [opinion, PDF] Tuesday in Messerschmidt v. Millender [JURIST report] that police officers continue to have qualified immunity if a search warrant is later found invalid. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, noted that the bar set in United States v. Leon [opinion] is a high standard, where officers cannot be reasonably expected to question a magistrate's writing of a warrant. Roberts stated that the breadth of the search, and the officers following that edict, was not sufficient to defeat qualified immunity:

The question in this case is not whether the magistrate erred in believing there was sufficient probable cause to support the scope of the warrant he issued. It is instead whether the magistrate so obviously erred that any reasonable officer would have recognized the error. The occasions on which this standard will be met may be rare, but so too are the circumstances in which it will be appropriate to impose personal liability on a lay officer in the face of judicial approval of his actions. 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.
In dissent, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that since the original warrant was issued over a domestic dispute, it was obviously overbroad to command officers to search for guns and gang-affiliation signs, and thus the officers were on notice.

The court declined to reconsider the qualified immunity standard set in Leon and Malley v. Briggs [opinions], which created the current qualified immunity standard. The opinions held that officers are entitled to qualified immunity, and evidence obtained should not be suppressed, so long as the warrant is not "so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence entirely unreasonable." The court also did not create an exception for lawful gun owners. JURIST Contributing Editor Stephen Halbrook, counsel for the National Rifle Association [official websites], argued before the court and in commentary for JURIST [JURIST comment] that police infringed on gun ownership rights by seizing guns of all those present without verifying that the suspect was in the area. Police officers entered on a warrant that authorized search for any guns or gang-related material. The plaintiffs also argued that this violated their Fourth Amendment [text] rights and thus the warrant was invalid and they were allowed to sue for civil damages.

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Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

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