475 U.S. 335 (1986), 84-1586, Malley v. Briggs

Docket NºNo. 84-1586
Citation475 U.S. 335, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed.2d 271, 54 U.S.L.W. 4243
Party NameMalley v. Briggs
Case DateMarch 05, 1986
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 335

475 U.S. 335 (1986)

106 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed.2d 271, 54 U.S.L.W. 4243




No. 84-1586

United States Supreme Court

March 5, 1986

Argued November 13, 1985




On the basis of the monitoring of two telephone calls pursuant to a court-authorized wiretap of the telephone of an acquaintance of respondents' daughter, petitioner Rhode Island state trooper (hereafter petitioner) prepared felony complaints charging respondents with possession of marihuana. The complaints were presented to a state judge, accompanied by arrest warrants and supporting affidavits. The judge signed the warrants and respondents were arrested, but the charges were subsequently dropped when the grand jury did not return an indictment. Respondents then brought a damages action in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that petitioner, in applying for the arrest warrants, violated their rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The case was tried to a jury, and the court, while granting a directed verdict for petitioner on other grounds at the close of respondents' evidence, stated that a police officer who believes that the facts stated in an affidavit are true and submits them to a neutral magistrate may be entitled to immunity under the "objective reasonableness" standard of Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800. The Court of Appeals reversed.

Held: Petitioner is not entitled to absolute immunity, but only to qualified immunity from liability for damages. Pp. 339-346.

(a) Neither the common law nor public policy affords any support for absolute immunity. Such immunity cannot be permitted on the basis that petitioner's function in seeking the arrest warrants was similar to that of a complaining witness, since complaining witnesses were not absolutely immune at common law. As a matter of public policy, qualified immunity provides ample protection to all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law. Nor is there any tradition of absolute immunity for a police officer requesting a warrant comparable to that afforded a prosecutor at common law. In the case of an officer applying for a warrant, the judicial process will, on the whole, benefit from a rule of qualified rather than absolute immunity. The Harlow "objective reasonableness" standard, which gives ample room for mistaken judgments, will not deter an officer from submitting an affidavit when there is probable cause to make an arrest, and defines the qualified

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immunity accorded an officer whose request for a warrant allegedly caused an unconstitutional arrest. Pp. 340-345.

[106 S.Ct. 1094] (b) Petitioner cannot avoid liability under the rule of qualified immunity on the grounds that the act of applying for an arrest warrant is per se objectively reasonable where the officer believes that the facts alleged in his affidavit are true, and that he is entitled to rely on the judicial officer's judgment in issuing the warrant, and hence finding that probable cause exists. The question is whether a reasonably well-trained officer in petitioner's position would have known that his affidavit failed to establish probable cause, and that he should not have applied for the warrant. If such was the case, the application for the warrant was not objectively reasonable, because it created the unnecessary danger of an unlawful arrest. Pp. 345-346.

748 F.2d 715, affirmed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 346.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question of the degree of immunity accorded a defendant police officer in a damages action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 when it is alleged that the officer caused the plaintiffs to be unconstitutionally arrested by presenting a judge with a complaint and a supporting affidavit which failed to establish probable cause.


In December, 1980, the Rhode Island State Police were conducting a court-authorized wiretap on the telephone of one Paul Driscoll, an acquaintance of respondents' daughter. On December 20, the police intercepted a call to Driscoll from an unknown individual who identified himself as "Dr. Shogun." The police logsheet summarizes the call as follows:

General conversation re. a party they went to last night . . . caller says I can't believe I was token [sic] in front of Jimmy Briggs -- caller states he passed it to Louisa . . . Paul says Nancy was sitting in his lap rolling her thing.

App. 78.

Petitioner Edward Malley (hereafter petitioner) was the Rhode Island state trooper in charge of the investigation of Driscoll. After reviewing the logsheet for December 20, petitioner decided that the call from "Dr. Shogun" was incriminating because, in drug parlance, "toking" means smoking marihuana and "rolling her thing" refers to rolling a marihuana

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cigarette. Petitioner also concluded that another call monitored the same day showed that the party discussed by Driscoll and "Dr. Shogun" took place at respondents' house. On the basis of these two calls, petitioner drew up felony complaints charging that respondents and Paul Driscoll

did unlawfully conspire to violate the uniform controlled substance act of the State of Rhode Island by having [marihuana] in their possession. . . .

Id. at 74. These complaints were presented to a State District Court Judge in February, 1981, after the wiretap of Driscoll's phone had been terminated. Accompanying the complaints were unsigned warrants for each respondent's arrest, and supporting affidavits describing the two intercepted calls and petitioner's interpretation of them. The judge signed warrants for the arrest of respondents and 20 other individuals charged by petitioner as a result of information gathered through the wiretap.

Respondents were arrested at their home shortly before six o'clock on the morning of March 19, 1981. They were taken to a police station, booked, held for several hours, arraigned, and released. Local and statewide newspapers published the fact that respondents, who are prominent members of their community, had been arrested and charged with drug possession. The charges against respondents were subsequently dropped [106 S.Ct. 1095] when the grand jury to which the case was presented did not return an indictment.

Respondents brought an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island charging, inter alia, that petitioner, in applying for warrants for their arrest, violated their rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The case was tried to a jury, and at the close of respondents' evidence, petitioner moved for and was granted a directed verdict.1 The District

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Court's primary justification for directing a verdict was that the act of the judge in issuing the arrest warrants for respondents broke the causal chain between petitioner's filing of a complaint and respondents' arrest. The court also stated that an officer who believes that the facts stated in his affidavit are true and who submits them to a neutral magistrate may thereby be entitled to immunity under the "objective reasonableness" standard of Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982).

The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed, holding that an officer who seeks an arrest warrant by submitting a complaint and supporting affidavit to a judge is not entitled to immunity unless the officer has an objectively reasonable basis for believing that the facts alleged in his affidavit are sufficient to establish probable cause. 748 F.2d 715 (1984). We granted certiorari in order to review the First Circuit's application of the "objective reasonableness" standard in this context. 471 U.S. 1124 (1985). We affirm.


Petitioner urges reversal on two grounds: first, that in this context, he is absolutely immune from liability for damages; second, that he is at least entitled to qualified immunity in this case. We reject both propositions, and address first the absolute immunity issue.


Our general approach to questions of immunity under § 1983 is by now well established. Although the statute on its face admits of no immunities, we have read it "in harmony with general principles of tort immunities and defenses, rather than in derogation of them." Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 418 (1976). Our initial inquiry is whether an official claiming immunity under § 1983 can point to a

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common law counterpart to the privilege he asserts. Tower v. Glover, 467 U.S. 914 (1984). If

an official was accorded immunity from tort actions at common law when the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1871, the Court next considers whether § 1983's history or purposes nonetheless counsel against recognizing the same immunity in § 1983 actions.

Id. at 920. Thus, while we look to the common law for guidance, we do not assume that Congress intended to incorporate every common law immunity into § 1983 in unaltered form.

Our cases also make plain that "[f]or executive officers in general, . . . qualified immunity represents the norm." Harlow, supra, at 807.2 Like federal officers, state officers who

seek absolute exemption from personal liability for unconstitutional conduct must [106 S.Ct. 1096] bear the burden of showing that public policy requires an exemption of that scope.

Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 506 (1978).


Although we have previously held that police officers sued under § 1983 for false arrest are qualifiedly immune, Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 557 (1967), petitioner urges that he should be absolutely immune, because his...

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