The U.S. Supreme court earlier this week heard oral arguments on an appeal from the Ninth Circuit that presented the question of whether a police officer could be held civilly liable for raiding a Los Angeles home and erroneously taking an elderly lady's legally owned gun. In Messerschmidt v. Millender, police officers stormed Augusta Millender's home during the early morning hours in 2003. They were looking for her foster son, Jerry Bowen, a gang member and felon, and were also looking for a sawed-off shotgun that Bowen had fired at his girlfriend during a domestic dispute. During the raid, the police found neither Bowen nor the shotgun. However, officers seized a gun owned by 73-year Millender, which she legally owned and kept for self-defense.
Millender subsequently brought a lawsuit against the officers that seized her handgun in federal court for violating her Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. The District Court and the Ninth Circuit ruled that the search warrant was overly broad and that parts of it were not supported by probable cause. Accordingly, the lower courts ruled that the search warrant improperly allowed the officers to search for “all handguns, shotguns and rifles” as well as “evidence showing street gang membership.” As such, the search warrant came close to being a general warrant, which is clearly invalid under the Fourth Amendment.
The trickier question on appeal is whether the police officers can be sued for executing an invalid warrant that lacks probable cause. In particular, Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335 (1986) holds that police executing a search warrant should be entitled to qualified immunity from civil lawsuits except in the rare situation where “the warrant application is so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence unreasonable.”
The New York Times reports that during oral arguments, several justices struggled with the question of whether, and to what extent, police officers should inquire to the validity of a search warrant that has been signed by a magistrate. On the one hand, Justice Sotomayor commented that placing no obligation on officers to inquire into the validity of a search warrant amounted to “a Nuremberg defense” in which “simply because supervisors decide that it's O.K. that exculpates someone from responsibility.” On the other hand, Justice Alito found it unsettling that a police officer, who was neither a lawyer nor a judge, should face the burden of having to second guess and potentially be held liable for the decision of a judge.
On a final note, this case has brought together sides that don't usually see eye-to-eye. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Rifle Association (NRA) both filed amicus curiae briefs in support of Millender.