• Qualified Immunity for Reasonable Reliance on Warrant
  • February 29, 2012 | Author: G. Ross Trindle
  • Law Firm: Best Best & Krieger LLP - Los Angeles Office
  • Overview: The United States Supreme Court recently overruled the lower courts and held that police officers were entitled to qualified immunity when they obtained a warrant to search for firearms and gang-related material in the home of a man who assaulted his ex-girlfriend. The Court held that the warrant was sufficient, that the officers reasonably relied upon it, and that a subsequent review of the warrant by a superior officer and a deputy district attorney further supported the reasonableness finding.

    Police Chief Training Point: Officers who submit detailed warrant applications to a neutral magistrate will usually be shielded from liability. Courts will conduct a qualified immunity analysis to determine whether the officers acted reasonably and in good faith reliance upon the warrant issued by the magistrate. There is a narrow exception to qualified immunity in warrant cases where the warrant authorizing the search is so “obviously defective” that no competent officer could reasonably conclude that it was valid. If the circumstances permit, review of a warrant application by a superior officer and/or an attorney from the District Attorney’s office likely will strengthen a qualified immunity argument.

    Summary Analysis: In Messerschmidt v. Millender, Jerry Ray Bowen, a gang member, assaulted his ex-girlfriend for “calling the cops” on him. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies obtained a warrant to search for “all guns and gang-related material” in the home of Bowen’s foster mother, Augusta Millender. The Millenders alleged they were subjected to an unreasonable search, as the warrant lacked sufficient indication of probable cause. While both the trial court and the Ninth Circuit found that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity, the Supreme Court disagreed, finding this case did not fall within the narrow exception for “obviously defective” warrants. Based on the facts in the warrant, the Court concluded that it was reasonable for an officer to believe the seizure of all firearms was necessary to prevent further assaults. The Court also concluded that it was reasonable to believe that Bowen attacked his ex-girlfriend to prevent her from telling police about his gang activities, thus making evidence of his gang affiliation helpful in prosecuting him for the assault.