Supreme Court Action: Qualified Immunity for Police Officers In Hot Pursuit

The Supreme Court issued its first opinion of the October 2013 Term on Monday.  The Court had earlier dismissed the writ of certiorari in Madigan v. Levin (12-87) on October 15th.  The Madigan case was the first argued in the current term.  The case at hand, though, is Stanton v. Sims (12-1217).  It was apparently decided on the basis of the petitions and record as the case did not come up for argument in October.  It involves whether a police officer is entitled to qualified immunity for injuries to a property owner when pursuing an individual on to that property when the individual is only subject to being charged with a misdemeanor.  The District Court said yes to that question and was reversed by the Ninth Circuit.  The Supreme Court agreed with the District Court and reversed the Ninth Circuit.

Officer Stanton was investigating reports of an individual with a baseball bat in La Mesa, California.  He identified himself as a police officer and called for one individual to stop and that individual ran onto the property of Drendolyn Sims.  Stanton gave chase and kicked open a closed gate leading to the front yard of Sims property.  Sims happened to be behind that gate at the time and suffered an injury to her forehead and shoulder.  She filed a §1983 lawsuit alleging a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The District Court held that Stanton’s entry onto her property was justified by the need to pursue the individual and by the lesser expectation of privacy Sims had in the curtilage of her property.  The Court also ruled that Stanton was entitled to qualified immunity because there was no clearly established law that put Stanton on notice that his conduct was unconstitutional.  The Ninth Circuit relied on one Supreme Court case and circuit precedent in another case to reverse.

In reversing, the Supreme Court said the Ninth Circuit misinterpreted the meaning of Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740 (1984).  The Court distinguished Welsh as there was no hot pursuit on that record compared the instant case.  The other case, United States v. Johnson, 256 F. 3d 895 (9th Cir. 2001) (en banc) did not involve circumstances of hot pursuit.  Moreover, there were two District Court cases out of the Ninth Circuit as well as two California Appellate Court cases that disagreed with the logic the Ninth Circuit applied in this case.  On that basis, the Supreme Court held that there was no clearly established law that would give Officer Stanton notice that he was violating the Constitution.  Officer Stanton was entitled to qualified immunity.  The opinion was issued per curiam.


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