Question: If a court finds your search warrant overbroad, are you open to civil liability?
Quick answer: Probably not. If you acted with a reasonable belief of probable cause, you should be entitled to qualified immunity.
Facts: Jerry Bowen, a known member of a gang, assaulted his girlfriend, Shelly Kelly, with a sawed-off shotgun for calling the police on him. Kelly reported the assault, and Detective Curt Messerschmidt met with her to discuss the crime. The detective investigated the girlfriend’s statement and learned that Bowen was involved in two gangs. He previously had been convicted of several violent firearms offenses, and at the time he was living in Augusta Millender’s home.
The detective drafted a warrant to search Millender’s house, including for “any firearms capable of firing ammunition,” “all caliber of ammunition,” and “evidence showing street gang membership.” The warrant application included two affidavits: one explained the detective’s experience and training in gang-related crimes and the other explained Bowen’s attack on his girlfriend and why there was probable cause to search the home. The detective’s supervisor and a deputy prosecutor reviewed the warrant application before a magistrate issued the warrant.
Police recovered Millender’s shotgun, a California Social Services letter addressed to Bowen, and a box of .45-caliber ammunition. As a result of the search, the Millenders filed a civil suit claiming the search violated the Fourth Amendment because the warrant was overbroad in allowing a search for all firearms, ammunition, and gang-related evidence.
Why the case is important: The Supreme Court held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because they had objective “good faith” that probable cause existed to search. Proof of the officers’ reasonableness was, first, that a neutral magistrate issued the warrant for the search. Second, a supervisor and deputy district attorney also reviewed and approved the warrant application.
More specifically, when considering Bowen’s gun assault on his girlfriend, his possession of an illegal gun, and his gang affiliation, officers may have believed probable cause existed to search the home for firearms and ammunition. Also, it was not objectively unreasonable for them to seize gang-related evidence because it may have been relevant to the crime, to Bowen’s control over the home, and to his connection to the evidence found there. The police officers received qualified immunity because they took every step reasonably expected.
Keep in mind: When getting a warrant, be as specific as possible in describing (1) the place to be searched, (2) the contents you want to seize, and (3) what evidence you believe shows probable cause for the search. But even if the warrant is later found invalid, you may be entitled to qualified immunity as long as no “reasonable officer” would find the warrant to be completely lacking in probable cause. To be sure, you should have a supervising officer and/or a prosecutor review your application to show your good faith in trying to follow the law.
to read the entire opinion.