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Messerschmidt v. Millender

Summarized by: 

Date Filed: February 22, 2012
Case #: 10-704
Roberts, C.J., delivered the Court's opinion, which was joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer and Alito, JJ. Breyer, J., filed a concurring opinion. Kagan, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Sotomayor, J., filed a dissenting opinion which Ginsburg, J., joined.
Full Text Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-704.pdf

Criminal Procedure: Police officers are entitled to qualified immunity from a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit when they have a reasonable belief that the scope of a warrant issued by a neutral magistrate was supported by probable cause.

While investigating a known gang member (Bowen) who shot at his ex-girlfriend with a pistol-gripped sawed-off shotgun because she "call[ed] the cops," police officer petitioners obtained a warrant to search Bowen's mother's (Millender's) home for "all guns and gang-related material." During the search police seized Millender’s personal shotgun, a box of .45 caliber ammunition, and a letter from Social Services addressed to Bowen. Bowen and Millender (the Millenders) brought an action seeking to hold the officers personally liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the search violated their Fourth Amendment rights because the the officers “failed to provide any facts or circumstances from which a magistrate could properly conclude that there was probable cause to seize the broad classes of items being sought,” and “[n]o reasonable officer would have presumed that such a warrant was valid.” The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed with the Millenders that the warrant was invalid and held that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity because the warrant "was so facially invalid that no reasonable officer could have relied on it" despite the magistrate’s approval.

The Supreme Court reversed and held that based on the known facts that Bowen owned one illegal shotgun and had just fired it multiple times in public in an attempt to murder another person for "call[ing] the cops," it was not unreasonable for the police to conclude that Bowen might own other illegal guns, and given Bowen’s known gang affiliation, a reasonable officer could conclude that gang paraphernalia might be found at the residence and would be an effective means of demonstrating Bowen’s control over the premises or his connection to evidence found there.