Overview: The U.S. Supreme Court recently reversed a Ninth Circuit decision denying qualified immunity to a California police officer in hot pursuit of a suspected misdemeanant. The suspect had entered an enclosed front yard after ignoring orders to stop. The officer kicked the gate open, injuring the owner of the residence. The owner claimed that he violated her Fourth Amendment rights. The Ninth Circuit held that the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity because the minor offense of disobeying the officer was only a misdemeanor and did not justify a warrantless entry. The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that federal and state courts were “sharply divided” as to whether officers in such cases may enter the area around a home without a warrant. Because the law at the time of the arrest was far from “clearly established,” the officer was not “plainly incompetent” in believing that his actions in hot pursuit of the suspect were justified. Thus, the officer was entitled to qualified immunity from suit.
Training Points: Whether an officer in hot pursuit of a suspected misdemeanant can enter the area around a home without a warrant remains unsettled. However, the Supreme Court has stated that because the law remains unsettled, officers cannot be held liable for civil damages for such a pursuit. Officers should continue to use their best judgment under the circumstances at the time, while law enforcement agencies may wish to review existing hot pursuit policies for compliance with the prevailing law in their specific jurisdiction as qualified immunity does not shield the employing agency from potential liability.
Summary Analysis: In Stanton v. Sims, Officer Stanton injured Drendolyn Sims when he kicked open her front gate in pursuit of a fleeing suspect who had disobeyed his orders. Sims sued Stanton under 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging that Stanton unreasonably searched her home without a warrant. The Ninth Circuit denied Stanton qualified immunity because his warrantless entry into Sims’ yard to arrest a suspect for a misdemeanor was “plainly incompetent.” The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that no “clearly established” law regarding warrantless entry in hot pursuit of a misdemeanant existed at the time of Stanton’s entry. In fact, two federal district courts in the Ninth Circuit had granted qualified immunity under similar circumstances. Further, two appellate courts in California even authorized such entry and state courts refused to limit the hot pursuit exception to felony suspects. Based on these facts, it was “especially troubling” that the Ninth Circuit would impose personal liability for an entry that would be considered lawful by courts in the jurisdiction where Stanton acted.