ELEVENTH CIRCUIT DENIES GRANT OF SUMMARY JUDGMENT AGAINST CLAIM OF QUALIFIED IMMUNITY

Miami Beach police received an anonymous tip that drugs were being sold from Janet Feliciano’s apartment. They knocked on her door and entered the apartment, despite her refusal to give consent. They claimed that they could smell marijuana and that they saw her significant other holding a marijuana cigarette. She denied that there was marijuana in the residence and that her significant other was holding a marijuana cigarette. They searched the entire apartment including her lingerie drawer and the pantry. The officers claim that exigent circumstances existed that allowed them to enter and search the apartment despite not having a search warrant since the marijuana may have been destroyed in the time it would have taken them to get a warrant. Furthermore they claimed that Feliciano’s children may have been injured by the presence of the marijuana.

Her significant other was arrested but the charges were later dismissed.

Feliciano sued the city and four officers for violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. The officers moved for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. The trial court denied the summary judgment motion on the grounds that the search exceeded the scope of the probable cause. It held that the officers had no reason to search the lingerie drawer or the pantry. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the denial of the summary judgment motion but it did so on the grounds that a triable fact exists as to whether or not the officers had the right to enter and search the apartment.

In ruling on an appeal of a summary judgment motion the appellate court is “required to view the evidence and all factual inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and resolve all reasonable doubts about the facts in favor of the non-movant.” Summary judgment can only be granted if ““there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact.”

The trial court wrongly refused to consider Feliciano’s declaration that there was no odor of marijuana in the apartment and that her significant other was not holding a marijuana cigarette. If she was right exigent circumstances did not exist allowing the officers to enter and search the apartment without probable cause. The question of the existence of exigent circumstances is a factual question for the jury to decide. Therefore the court rejected the appeal and remanded the case to the trial court for further actions.

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