Another Unanimous Summary Reversal for Judge Reinhardt

Today’s iteration of a longstanding Supreme Court tradition is Stanton v. Sims (per curiam), a qualified immunity decision summarily reversing Judge Reinhardt’s decision in Sims v. Stanton, 706 F.3d 954 (9th Cir. 2013) (Reinhardt, J., joined by Silverman and Wardlaw), a slightly earlier version of which you can find here. For those interested, here is the qualified immunity analysis in the 9th Circuit’s decision:

In a claim for civil damages under § 1983, to avoid the bar of qualified immunity, the plaintiff must show that the officer violated a constitutional right and that the right was “clearly established” at the time of the occurrence. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). The determination whether a right was clearly established “must be undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition.” Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001). The individual circumstances of the case do not, however, provide a basis for qualified immunity if “the unlawfulness was apparent in light of preexisting law.” Jensen v. City of Oxnard, 145 F.3d 1078, 1085 (9th Cir.1998) (internal citation omitted). “Although earlier cases involving ‘fundamentally similar’ facts can provide especially strong support for a conclusion that the law is clearly established, they are not necessary to such a finding.” Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 741, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 153 L.Ed.2d 666 (2002). The Supreme Court has made clear that “officials can still be on notice that their conduct violates established law even in novel factual circumstances.” Id. Therefore, the “salient question” is “whether the state of the law” in 2008 gave Stanton “fair warning” that his warrantless entry was unconstitutional. Id.

Contrary to the district court’s findings, a reasonable officer should have known that the warrantless entry into Sims’s front yard violated the Fourth Amendment because clearly established law afforded notice that Sims’s front yard was curtilage and, was therefore, protected to the same extent as her home. Established law also afforded notice that a warrantless entry into a home cannot be justified by pursuit of a suspected misdemeanant except in the rarest of circumstances. Since well before the incident occurred in 2008, Supreme Court law and the precedent of this court had established that, on the basis of the record before us, Stanton’s conduct was clearly unconstitutional.

A front yard has been considered curtilage since 1984 when the Supreme Court decided Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. at 170, 104 S.Ct. 1735. A front yard enclosed by a six-foot-tall, wooden fence, in which private items are stored and social interactions take place is the paradigmatic example of curtilage and is both “clearly marked” and “easily understood.” Id. at 182 n. 12, 104 S.Ct. 1735. Thus, Stanton should have known that his warrantless entry was presumptively unconstitutional.

This presumption may be overcome only by circumstances justifying either an exigency or emergency exception. Stanton attempts to show exigent circumstances by pointing to the risk that Patrick might escape. It should have been clear to Stanton, however, from Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit decisions that law enforcement actions involving a misdemeanor offense will rarely, if ever, justify a warrantless entry. Welsh, 466 U.S. at 750, 104 S.Ct. 2091 (clearly established since 1984); Johnson, 256 F.3d at 908 (clearly established since 2001). That Welsh leaves open the possibility for a “rare” exception to this rule does not mean that the rule was not clearly established at the time and does not change our qualified immunity analysis. Here, nothing in the record suggests that this case was “rare” in any respect.

Stanton also contends that the emergency exception justified his warrantless entry by asserting that he feared for his safety. The circumstances of this case belie the reasonableness of that fear. The non-serious nature of the underlying offense, failure to heed an officer’s command, precludes us from finding, on the record before us, that an emergency exception*965 was applicable. LaLonde, 204 F.3d at 958 (clearly established since 2000). So, too, does the lack of any reasonable basis for any specific concern that the individuals involved were likely to engage in any act of violence. Accordingly, Stanton is not entitled to qualified immunity.

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