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Police Warrantless Entry Into Curtilage Gets Qualified Immunity


Supreme Court of the United States

Stanton v.  Sims

Decided November 4, 2013 

Issue: Whether there was qualified immunity for a police officer who enters the curtilage of a home by forced entry through a gate while in hot pursuit of a suspect for a misdemeanor offense.

Holding:  Yes, The officer has qualified immunity to this pursuit because his actions did not rise to the level of being plainly incompetent. Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, Government officials are protected ‘from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’ “

Facts: Officer Mike Stanton and his partner responded to a call about an “unknown disturbance” involving a person with a baseball bat in La Mesa, California. Upon arrival, Officer Stanton and his partner found three men who were walking away from the officer’s car. Two men walked away and Nicholas Patrick “briskly” walked across the street in front of the officer’s car toward a residence.

Officer Stanton did not see the suspect with a baseball bat, but considered his behavior to be suspicious and decided to detain him to investigate. When Stanton exited the car he yelled “Police” and ordered Patrick to stop. Patrick ignored Stanton and entered a front gate of a home belonging to another person. Patrick closed the gate behind him where Stanton could no longer see him.

Stanton believed that Patrick was the suspect of a crime. He kicked open the gate. The homeowner was standing behind the gate and when Stanton kicked it open she cut her forehead and injured her shoulder.

Legal Analysis:  The United States Supreme Court decided that Officer Stanton has qualified immunity because The Doctrine of Qualified Immunity protects government officials ‘from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’“. “Qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments and “protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law. ‘“

 The U.S Supreme Court looked at the Ninth Circuits opinion that denied Stanton qualified immunity.  In their analysis on the issue of hot pursuit the panel relied on two cases. Welsh v. Wisconsin 466 U.S 740, 750 (1984) and one from its own United States v. Johnson 256 F. 3d 895 908 (9th circ. ) (2001). In Welsh vs. Wisconsin, Police officers entered the home of Edward Welsh without a warrant and without consent to make an arrest because he had been driving drunk. The court pronounced ‘If there is no continuous or immediate pursuit’, “application of the exigent circumstances exception in the context of a home should rarely be sanctioned and a warrant is “usually” required.’”

In U.S vs. Johnson, where police officers broke into Johnson’s yard attempting to apprehend a suspect on a misdemeanor arrest warrant, the court held that the officer’s entry required a search warrant. The facts of Johnson’s case are not covered by the ‘hot pursuit’ doctrine because suspect had fled 30 minutes prior and his whereabouts were unknown. In part, the suspect was wanted for a misdemeanor offense and the Ninth circuit decided no qualified immunity granted.

In this case, the U.S Supreme court’s opinion supports qualified immunity to Stanton because the Officer visibly saw Patrick flee and the officer had every reason to believe that Patrick was just beyond the gate. These actions did not rise to the level of plain incompetence.

The U.S Supreme court reviewed the two cases cited by the 9th circuit and did not express any view on whether Officer Stanton’s entry into Sims’s yard in pursuit of Patrick was constitutional, but whether or not the constitutional rule applied by the court below was correct. Stanton may have been mistaken in believing his actions were justified, but he was not ‘plainly incompetent’; therefore he was granted qualified immunity. Malley, 475 U.S., at 341.

Stephen Preziosi is a criminal appeals lawyer in New York City’s Times Square.  His firm handles both New York Criminal Appeals and Federal Criminal Appeals throughout the nation.