U.S. Supreme Court

Cops Entitled to Immunity in Suit by Suspect's Mom over Broad Search, Supreme Court Says

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Police officers are entitled to immunity for conducting a search under a broad search warrant, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

The warrant authorized a search for gang-related materials and all guns, though police were investigating a shooting involving a sawed-off shotgun used in a domestic dispute, according to the majority opinion (PDF) by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

The suspect, Jerry Ray Bowen, was accused of firing five shots at his ex-girlfriend as she sped away in her car. Bowen was allegedly enraged because the girlfriend had asked police to accompany her so she could retrieve her belongings. Police weren’t there at the crucial time, however, because they were called away on another matter.

Police later searched the home of the suspect’s foster mother, Augusta Millender, based on the belief that Bowen was staying there. The only firearm found was a legal gun that Millender used for self-defense. Millender filed suit before her death.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the police were not entitled to immunity because the warrant was so obviously invalid that any officer would have recognized it. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed.

A search authorized by a warrant is evidence that officers acted in a reasonable manner, Roberts said. An exception allows liability when it is obvious that no reasonably competent officer would have concluded that a warrant should have been issued. The case does not fit within the exception, Roberts said.

“Evidence of one crime is not always evidence of several, but given Bowen’s possession of one illegal gun, his gang membership, his willingness to use the gun to kill someone, and his concern about the police, a reasonable officer could conclude that there would be additional illegal guns,” Roberts wrote. In addition, Roberts said, a reasonable officer could conclude Bowen’s attack was partly motivated by his fear that the former girlfriend would disclose details of his gang activity.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, while Justice Elena Kagan concurred in part and dissented in part. Kagan agreed with immunity for the gun search, but not for the gang paraphernalia search.

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