371 F.3d 110 (2nd Cir. 2004), 02-9209, Moore v. Vega

Docket Nº:02-9209.
Citation:371 F.3d 110
Party Name:Yvonne MOORE, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Angela VEGA, State Parole Officer and A. Lavinio, Defendants-Appellants, George E. Pataki, in his official capacity as Governor of the State of New York, Brion D. Travis, in his official capacity as Chairman of the Division of Parole of the State of New York, and John Doe 1 Thru John Doe, Defendants.
Case Date:June 10, 2004
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
 
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371 F.3d 110 (2nd Cir. 2004)

Yvonne MOORE, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

Angela VEGA, State Parole Officer and A. Lavinio, Defendants-Appellants,

George E. Pataki, in his official capacity as Governor of the State of New York, Brion D. Travis, in his official capacity as Chairman of the Division of Parole of the State of New York, and John Doe 1 Thru John Doe, Defendants.

No. 02-9209.

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

June 10, 2004

Argued Dec. 5, 2003.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Daniel J. Chepaitis, Assistant Solicitor General, New York, New York (Eliot Spitzer, Attorney General of the State of New York, Michael Belohlavek, Deputy Solicitor General, New York, New York, of counsel), for Defendants-Appellants Angela Vega and Alex Lavinio.

Edward A. Roberts, Brooklyn, New York, for Plaintiff-Appellee Yvonne Moore.

Before: CARDAMONE, SACK, and GIBSON [*], Circuit Judges.

CARDAMONE, Circuit Judge.

This appeal concerns a late-at-night warrantless search of plaintiff's house by state parole officers. The parole officers searched plaintiff's residence based upon mistaken information. As a result of that invasion plaintiff Yvonne Moore brought suit against the defendant parole officers and others she alleges were responsible for violating her Fourth Amendment

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rights. The householder should not in this case recover merely because the searching officers erred.

Defendants Angela Vega and Alex Lavinio are both New York State parole officers. They appeal from a September 10, 2002 order of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Garaufis, J.), which denied their motion for summary judgment in an action brought against them by plaintiff Yvonne Moore. Moore filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claiming her Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unreasonable search was violated when defendants entered her home without a search warrant to search for an absconded parolee who they had been informed was residing there.

We vacate the district court's order and remand the case for it to grant summary judgment in favor of defendants because it was objectively reasonable for the parole officers to believe that their actions were not in contravention of the Fourth Amendment.

BACKGROUND

Events of January 29, 1998

Officer Vega was assigned to Rondell Moore, a/k/a Kurt Moore, an absconded parolee for whom a parole violation warrant had been issued. On January 29, 1998 Officer Vega became aware from information contained in the parolee's folder that he was presently residing at an address in Brooklyn, New York. She verified the information with the agent from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), who had provided the New York State Division of Parole with the address. The agent confirmed the information in a telephone call in which he indicated he remembered Moore's name, even though he was not aware of the status of the parolee's case.

As a result of this knowledge, at 11:45 p.m. on January 29 Officers Vega and Lavinio, along with five other state parole officers, went to the Brooklyn address for the purpose of finding and arresting Rondell Moore pursuant to the parole violation warrant. The officers rang the doorbell repeatedly and knocked loudly, rousing plaintiff and her daughter, who had both been asleep, and bringing them to the door. Through the door's window they saw seven officers outside and heard one of them say "It's the police, open the door." Plaintiff opened the door and Officers Vega and Lavinio went inside. When plaintiff and her daughter asked what they wanted, defendants answered that they were looking for an absconded parolee named Rondell Moore and were going to search the house for him. They produced no search warrant.

Plaintiff or her daughter informed defendants that no one by that name lived in their house, and pointed out Monclear Rhodil Moore, plaintiff's husband, who was asleep in the living room. Defendants realized that Rhodil Moore, who was an ill, elderly man, was not the person for whom they were looking. Plaintiff's daughter volunteered that she had a brother named Kurt Moore, but that he did not live there. Kurt Moore was a name used as an alias by the absconded parolee for whom defendants were searching. Upon gaining this information, defendants proceeded to search the house. At the beginning of their search they came across a picture of Kurt Moore that resembled the parolee at a younger age. After continuing their search, they uncovered nothing further regarding the parolee.

When the officers' search was complete, plaintiff's daughter showed them a different picture of her brother Kurt Moore that

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Officers Vega and Lavinio agreed did not in any way resemble the parolee. At this point, defendants realized they had been provided with incorrect information by the ATF, apologized to the plaintiff and her family, gave them their business cards so that they could lodge a complaint, and left the residence with the other officers who had accompanied them.

The Instant Action

In April 1999 plaintiff Moore brought the instant action for damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of her First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights by New York State Governor George Pataki, Chairman of the Division of Parole of the State of New York Brion Travis, and Parole Officers Vega and Lavinio. Subsequently plaintiff voluntarily withdrew her claims against Governor Pataki and Commissioner Travis. On April 26, 2002 defendant officers moved for summary judgment. The district court granted summary judgment against plaintiff on all her causes of action, except for her Fourth Amendment claim.

The court denied defendants' motion with respect to the Fourth Amendment cause of action, holding that triable issues of fact regarding the legality of the search precluded summary judgment, and also ruled that the parole officers had not established entitlement to qualified immunity. The court based its conclusion on the fact that plaintiff had not consented to the search of her home. It did not address the special circumstances presented by the fact that defendant parole officers were searching for an absconded parolee in a place that they believed he would be found.

DISCUSSION

I The Applicable Law

We review de novo a district court's decision denying a defendant government official's motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. Cerrone v. Brown, 246 F.3d 194, 198 (2d Cir.2001). The threshold inquiry in our consideration of a qualified immunity defense is to determine whether the actions complained of by the plaintiff rise to the level of a deprivation of a constitutional right. See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001); Holcomb v. Lykens, 337 F.3d 217, 220 (2d Cir.2003). If we conclude that the plaintiff was deprived of a constitutional right our analysis turns to whether the defendant officers are entitled to qualified immunity.

There are two ways government officials can show they are entitled to qualified immunity arising from their discretionary actions. First, they are immune from liability if their conduct does not violate "clearly established" statutory or constitutional rights the existence of which a reasonable person would have known. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982); Cerrone, 246 F.3d at 199. In other words, the unlawfulness of the officials' actions must be apparent to support a viable claim. Townes v. City of New York, 176 F.3d 138, 144 (2d Cir.1999). Only Supreme Court and Second Circuit precedent existing at the time of the alleged violation is relevant in deciding whether a right is clearly established. Id.

Second, government officials will be immune if they can establish that it was objectively reasonable for them to believe their actions were lawful at the...

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