Vol. 28 No. 25 – U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Denial of Qualified Immunity


On November 4, 2013, the United States Supreme Court unanimously reversed a decision by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals denying qualified immunity for an officer.  In the case of Stanton v. Sims, the lower court held that Officer Stanton’s warrantless entry into Sims’ yard was unconstitutional because Sims was entitled to the same expectation of privacy in her curtilage as in her home itself; because there was no immediate danger; and because the suspect, Patrick, had committed only the minor offense of disobeying a police officer.

The Ninth Circuit had also found the law to be clearly established at the time, that Stanton’spursuit of Patrick did not justify his warrantless entry, given that Patrick was suspected of only a minor misdemeanor.  As such, the court held that Stanton was not entitled to qualified immunity. The Supreme Court addressed only the denial of qualified immunity and reversed that decision.

[For more information regarding the underlying decision by the Ninth Circuit, see the December 17, 2012, JONES & MAYER Client Alert Memo, Vol. 27 No. 22 – “Hot Pursuit of Misdemeanants and Warrantless Entry Into A Home and/or Its Curtilage.”]

Supreme Court’s Analysis

“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.’ (citations)  ‘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.’ We do not require a case directly on point before concluding that the law is clearly established, but existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.”

“There is no suggestion in this case that Officer Stanton knowingly violated the Constitution; the question is whether, in light of precedent existing at the time, he was ‘plainly incompetent’ in entering Sims’ yard to pursue the fleeing Patrick.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that he was. It did so despite the fact that federal and state courts nationwide are sharply divided on the question whether an officer with probable cause to arrest a suspect for a misdemeanor may enter a home without a warrant while in hot pursuit of that suspect.”

The Supreme Court noted that “other courts have concluded that police officers are at least entitled to qualified immunity in these circumstances because the constitutional violation is not clearly established.”  The Court distinguished several of their own previous decisions, which the Ninth Circuit relied upon in concluding that Officer Stanton had no right to enter the property when “pursuing” someone for a minor misdemeanor.

The Court noted that those prior decisions did not involve hot pursuit of a suspect. “Thus, despite our emphasis in [Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U. S. 740, (1984)] on the fact that the crime at issue was minor—indeed, a mere nonjailable civil offense—nothing in the opinion establishes that the seriousness of the crime is equally important in cases of hot pursuit.  [E]ven in the portion of Welsh cited by the Ninth Circuit below, our opinion is equivocal: We held not that warrantless entry to arrest a misdemeanant is never justified, but only that such entry should be rare.”  (Emphasis in original.)


It is important to note that the Supreme Court addressed only the issue of qualified immunity from civil liability.  Was the law so clearly established at the time Officer Stanton entered the property that he should be denied immunity for violating the constitutional rights of Mrs. Sims?  On that point, the Supreme Court overruled the lower court’s decision.

However, the Court noted, “(w)e do not express any view on whether Officer Stanton’s entry into Sims’ yard in pursuit of Patrick was constitutional. But whether or not the constitutional rule applied by the court below was correct, it was not ‘beyond debate.’ Stanton may have been mistaken in believing his actions were justified, but he was not ‘plainly incompetent.’” As such, the Court concluded, he should have been granted qualified immunity from civil liability.

It is important for officers to understand that each case will be decided on the facts of that particular case.  One should not assume that a warrantless entry into a home, or the curtilage of a home, is acceptable when it involves a minor misdemeanor.  As the Supreme Court stated, “(w)e held not that warrantless entry to arrest a misdemeanant is never justified, but only that such entry should be rare.”  (Emphasis added.)

This reversal by the Supreme Court is good news for Officer Stanton, but does not establish clear law regarding warrantless entries into homes to arrest a person for a minor misdemeanor.  As in all matters involving interpretation of the law, it is important to secure advice and guidance from your agency’s legal counsel.

As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446 – 1400 or via email at mjm@jones-mayer.com.

Information on www.jones-mayer.com is for general use and is not legal advice. The mailing of this Client Alert Memorandum is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute an attorney – client relationship.