By Kim Cowell and Lala Kahramanian
Plaintiffs brought an action against police officers under 42 U.S.C. §1983 alleging that the officers violated their Fourth Amendment rights by entering their home without a search warrant. In a closely-watched decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision and held that the Fourth Amendment allows officers to enter a residence without a warrant when they have an objectively reasonable belief that an occupant is imminently threatened with serious injury. In this case, the officers were entitled to qualified immunity given the mother of the student/suspect’s odd behavior and the circumstances surrounding the officers’ arrival at the residence.
Officers from the Burbank Police Department were informed by the principal at a Burbank high school that a student was rumored to have written a letter threatening to “shoot up” the school. The principal was concerned for the safety of the other students and asked the officers to investigate the threat.
During the course of the investigation, the officers learned that the student was frequently the subject of bullying, and he had not been in school for the past two days. Officers also interviewed the student’s classmates, one of whom expressed his belief that the student was capable of carrying out the alleged threat. The officers were concerned about reports that the student was the subject of bullying and the fact that he had been absent from school. The officers had received special training regarding targeted school violence and they were aware that these characteristics were common among perpetrators of school shootings.
The officers responded to the student’s home in order to interview him. An officer knocked on the door several times and announced that he was from the Burbank Police Department. When no one answered the door, the officer proceeded to place a call to the home. The officers could hear the phone ringing inside the home but it remained unanswered. A Sergeant then called the cell phone of the student’s mother. When the mother answered the phone, the Sergeant identified himself and inquired about her and the student’s location. The mother stated that she was at home with her son. The Sergeant then told the mother that he and the officers were outside and they requested to speak to her. However, the mother hung up the phone. A few minutes later, both the mother and her son came outside. The officer advised them regarding the nature of their visit and the rumored threats. The student appeared to be aware of the threats and he stated, “I can’t believe you’re here for that.” At this point, the Sergeant asked if they can continue the interview inside, but the mother refused. Based on his experience while working at the juvenile bureau, the Sergeant thought it was extremely unusual that a parent would decline a request to interview the juvenile inside the home. He also found it odd that the mother never inquired about the officers’ reason for the visit. Following her refusal to allow the officers to interview the student inside the home, the Sergeant asked the mother if there were any guns inside her residence. At this point, the mother immediately turned around and ran inside her house.
The Sergeant entered the home behind her because he did not know what was inside the home, and he was concerned about the safety of the occupants and the other officers. The student entered the home after the Sergeant and the officer. The officer was also concerned about officer safety and he did not want the Sergeant to enter the house alone. The two other officers who accompanied the Sergeant and officer also entered the home.
Once inside the home, the officers remained in the living room with the mother and student. During this time, the student’s father also entered the room and challenged the officers’ authority to be there. The officers were inside the house for approximately 5 to 10 minutes during which time they spoke to the student and his mother. The officers did not conduct any type of search and eventually concluded that the rumor was false.
The students’ parents filed suit against the police officers under Rev. Stat. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. §1983 alleging that the officers violated their Fourth Amendment rights because they entered their home without a warrant. Following a two-day bench trial, the District Court found that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because the mother’s odd behavior, combined with the information the officers gathered at the school, could have led reasonable officers to believe “that there could be weapons inside the house, and that family members or the officers themselves were in danger.” The Ninth Circuit disagreed with the District Court’s finding that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity and held that “any belief that the officers or other family members were in serious, imminent harm would have been objectively unreasonable, given that the mother merely asserted her right to end her conversation with the officers and returned to her home.”
The Supreme Court held that the officers had an objectively reasonable basis for fearing that violence was imminent. The Supreme Court noted four deficiencies with the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning.
First, the Court found that although the Ninth Circuit panel majority purported to accept the District Court’s findings, it changed those findings in several key respects. For example, the panel did not adopt the District Court’s findings that the mother “immediately turned around and ran into her house” and instead chose to adopt the mother’s testimony that she walked into the house after telling the officers that she was going to get her husband.
Second, the panel majority appeared to have taken the view that conduct cannot be regarded as a matter of concern so long as it is lawful. The panel majority in this case found that the mother’s reaction of immediately running into the house upon being asked about guns in the house was not reason for alarm because she was under no legal obligation to continue her conversation with the police. The Supreme Court explained that this reasoning is flawed because there are many circumstances in which lawful conduct may nonetheless signify imminent violence.
Third, the Court found that the panel’s method of analyzing each and every event in isolation, as opposed to considering the combination of events as whole, was unrealistic. The Court explained that it is a “matter of common sense that a combination of events each of which is mundane when viewed in isolation may paint an alarming picture.”
Fourth, the Court concluded that “judges should be cautious about second-guessing a police officer’s assessment, made on the scene, of the danger presented by a particular situation.” The Court relied on a previous Supreme Court decision which held that reasonableness “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight” and “[t]he calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments-in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396-397, 109 S. Ct. 1865, 104 L. Ed. 2d 443 (1989).
The Court concluded that the officers reasonably came to the conclusion that the Fourth Amendment permitted them to enter the student’s residence because there was an objectively reasonable basis for fearing that violence was imminent.