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Police aren’t liable for executing ‘overbroad’ warrant, rules high court

By Pat Murphy
Dolan Newswires

Police officers were immune from being sued for violating the Fourth Amendment by executing a purportedly overbroad “all firearms” search warrant, the U.S Supreme Court has ruled.

The ruling reverses an en banc decision from the 9th Circuit.

The plaintiffs sued under §1983, alleging that police violated their rights against unreasonable searches and seizures by executing a patently overbroad search warrant at their home. The officers were investigating a suspect who allegedly shot at his wife several times using a black sawed off shotgun with a pistol grip.

According to the plaintiffs, the search warrant was overbroad because it authorized police to search for and seize all “handguns, rifles, or shotguns of any caliber” when a specifically identifiable weapon was the object of the search.

Further, the plaintiffs argued that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity because a reasonable officer would have been aware of the warrant’s deficiency.

Without deciding the validity of the warrant, the Court held that it was not so obvious­ly defective that no reasonable officer could have believed it was valid.

“Even if the scope of the warrant were overbroad in authorizing a search for all guns when there was infor­mation only about a specific one, that specific one was a sawed-off shotgun with a pistol grip, owned by a known gang member, who had just fired the weapon five times in public in an attempt to murder another person, on the asserted ground that she had ‘call[ed] the cops’ on him.’…

“Under these circumstances – set forth in the warrant – it would not have been unreasonable for an officer to conclude that there was a ‘fair probability’ that the sawed-off shotgun was not the only firearm [the suspect] owned,” the Court said.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a concurring opinion. Justice Elena Kagan wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Sonia Sotomoyor wrote a dissent in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined.

U.S. Supreme Court. Messerschmidt v. Millender, No. 10-704.  Feb. 22, 2012. Lawyers USA No. 993-3579.


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