In its first decision of the 2013-2014 season the Supreme Court reversed a finding by the Ninth Circuit that an officer was not protected by qualified immunity for entering a residence in hot pursuit.
When La Mesa, California police officer Mike Stanton responded to a complaint of a street disturbance he found three men standing on the street. While he did not see a crime in progress, one of the men, Nicholas Patrick ran into a nearby house. Sims ordered him to stop. When Patrick continued running Patrick chased him, planning to arrest him for the misdemeanor, failure to follow a lawful police order. Patrick shut the door behind him. Sims pushed the door open and went into the residence. When he opened the door he injured the owner of the house, Drendolyn Sims who was standing behind the door.
She sued claiming that Stanton’s entrance into her house was an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment bans searches of residences without a search warrants with only a few exceptions. Stanton claimed that he had qualified immunity, ie as a government official he is protected from suit since no clearly established decision has found that Sims actions violated the constitution. The specific issue was whether an officer could enter a residence in hot pursuit to arrest an individual for which there was probable cause that the person had committed a misdemeanor. Prior decisions have held that an officer could enter in hot pursuit to arrest someone who had committed a felony but the law is unclear whether that applies to those who commit misdemeanors.
The District Court’s grant of qualified immunity was reversed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a per curiam opinion the Supreme Court found that qualified immunity was properly granted. The court stated
“[t]wo opinions of” the Supreme Court . . . “were equivocal on the lawfulness of his entry; two opinions of the State Court of Appeal affirmatively authorized that entry; the most relevant opinion of the Ninth Circuit was readily distinguishable; two Federal District Courts in the Ninth Circuit had granted qualified immunity in the wake of that opinion; and the federal and state courts of last resort around the Nation were sharply divided.”
As a result the Supreme Court decided that at the time Officer Stanton entered the Sims residence the question of whether the entrance was constitutional was not clearly decided and Stanton deserved qualified immunity. The irony of the situation is Ms Sims loses her suit even though Stanton may have violated her Fourth Amendment rights. Furthermore, the same situation could occur again. The Supreme Court refused to decide whether or not the entrance into a residence in pursuit of someone thought to have committed a misdemeanor is permissible under the Fourth Amendment. Even if eventually the Supreme Court finds that it is unconstitutional for the police to enter a residence in hot pursuit of one whom they have probable cause to believe committed a misdemeanor, for the time being the owner of the house cannot sue for damages.