483 U.S. 635 (1987), 85-1520, Anderson v. Creighton

Docket Nº:No. 85-1520
Citation:483 U.S. 635, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523, 55 U.S.L.W. 5092
Party Name:Anderson v. Creighton
Case Date:June 25, 1987
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 635

483 U.S. 635 (1987)

107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523, 55 U.S.L.W. 5092

Anderson

v.

Creighton

No. 85-1520

United States Supreme Court

June 25, 1987

Argued February 23, 1987

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Petitioner, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, participated with other law enforcement officers in a warrantless search of respondents' home. The search was conducted because petitioner believed that one Dixon, who was suspected of a bank robbery committed earlier that day, might be found there, but he was not. Respondents filed a state court action against petitioner, asserting a claim for damages under the Fourth Amendment. Petitioner removed the suit to Federal District Court and then filed a motion for dismissal or summary judgment, arguing that the Fourth Amendment claim was barred by his qualified immunity from civil damages liability. Before any discovery occurred, the court granted summary judgment on the ground that the search was lawful. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the search's lawfulness could not be determined on summary judgment, because factual disputes precluded deciding as a matter of law that the search was supported by probable cause and exigent circumstances. The court also held that petitioner was not entitled to summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds, since the right he allegedly violated -- the right of persons to be protected from warrantless searches of their homes unless the searching officers have probable cause and there are exigent circumstances -- was clearly established.

Held:

1. Petitioner is entitled to summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds if he can establish as a matter of law that a reasonable officer could have believed that the search comported with the Fourth Amendment, even though it actually did not. Whether an official protected by qualified immunity may be held personally liable for an allegedly unlawful official action generally turns on the "objective legal reasonableness" of the action, assessed in light of the legal rules that were "clearly established" at the time the action was taken. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800. In order to conclude that the right which the official [107 S.Ct. 3037] allegedly violated is "clearly established," the contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right. The Court of Appeals -- which apparently considered only the fact that the right to be free from warrantless searches of one's home unless the searching officers have probable cause

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and there are exigent circumstances was clearly established -- erred by refusing to consider the argument that it was not clearly established that the circumstances with which petitioner was confronted did not constitute probable cause and exigent circumstances. The relevant question here is the objective question whether a reasonable officer could have believed petitioner's warrantless search to be lawful, in light of clearly established law and the information the searching officers possessed. Petitioner's subjective beliefs about the search are irrelevant. Pp. 638-641.

2. There is no merit to respondents' argument that it is inappropriate to give officials alleged to have violated the Fourth Amendment -- and thus necessarily to have unreasonably searched or seized -- the protection of a qualified immunity intended only to protect reasonable official action. Such argument is foreclosed by the fact that this Court has previously extended qualified immunity to officials who were alleged to have violated the Fourth Amendment. Also without merit is respondents' suggestion that Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, be overruled by holding that qualified immunity may never be extended to officials who conduct unlawful warrantless searches. Nor is there any merit to respondents' contention that no immunity should be provided to police officers who conduct unlawful warrantless searches of innocent third parties' homes in search of fugitives. Pp. 642-646.

766 F.2d 1269, vacated and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, p. 647.

SCALIA, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether a federal law enforcement officer who participates in a search that violates the Fourth Amendment may be held personally liable for money

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damages if a reasonable officer could have believed that the search comported with the Fourth Amendment.

I

Petitioner Russell Anderson is an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On November 11, 1983, Anderson and other state and federal law enforcement officers conducted a warrantless search of the home of respondents, the Creighton family. The search was conducted because Anderson believed that Vadaain Dixon, a man suspected of a bank robbery committed earlier that day, might be found there. He was not.

The Creightons later filed suit against Anderson in a Minnesota state court, asserting among other things a claim for money damages under the Fourth Amendment, see Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971).1 After removing the suit to Federal District Court, Anderson filed a motion to dismiss or for [107 S.Ct. 3038] summary judgment, arguing that the Bivens claim was barred by Anderson's qualified immunity from civil damages liability. See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982). Before any discovery took place, the District Court granted summary judgment on the ground that the search was lawful, holding that the undisputed facts revealed that Anderson had had probable cause to search the Creighton's home, and that his failure to obtain a warrant was justified by the presence of exigent circumstances. App. to Pet. for Cert. 23a-25a.

The Creightons appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which reversed. Creighton v. St. Paul, 766 F.2d 1269 (1985). The Court of Appeals held that the issue of the lawfulness of the search could not properly be decided on summary judgment, because unresolved factual disputes

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made it impossible to determine as a matter of law that the warrantless search had been supported by probable cause and exigent circumstances. Id. at 1272-1276. The Court of Appeals also held that Anderson was not entitled to summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds, since the right Anderson was alleged to have violated -- the right of persons to be protected from warrantless searches of their home unless the searching officers have probable cause and there are exigent circumstances -- was clearly established. Ibid.

Anderson filed a petition for certiorari, arguing that the Court of Appeals erred by refusing to consider his argument that he was entitled to summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds if he could establish as a matter of law that a reasonable officer could have believed the search to be lawful. We granted the petition, 478 U.S. 1003 (1986), to consider that important question.

II

When government officials abuse their offices, "action[s] for damages may offer the only realistic avenue for vindication of constitutional guarantees." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. at 814. On the other hand, permitting damages suits against government officials can entail substantial social costs, including the risk that fear of personal monetary liability and harassing litigation will unduly inhibit officials in the discharge of their duties. Ibid. Our cases have accommodated these conflicting concerns by generally providing government officials performing discretionary functions with a qualified immunity, shielding them from civil damages liability as long as their actions could reasonably have been thought consistent with the rights they are alleged to have violated. See, e.g., Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986) (qualified immunity protects "all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law"); id. at 344-345 (police officers applying for warrants are immune if a

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reasonable officer could have believed that there was probable cause to support the application); Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 528 (1985) (officials are immune unless "the law clearly proscribed the actions" they took); Davis v. Scherer, 468 U.S. 183, 191 (1984); id. at 198 (BRENNAN, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part); Harlow v. Fitzgerald, supra, at 819. Cf., e.g., Procunier v. Navarette, 434 U.S. 555, 562 (1978). Somewhat more concretely, whether an official protected by qualified immunity may be held personally liable for an allegedly unlawful official action generally turns on the "objective legal reasonableness" of the action, Harlow, 457 U.S. at 819, assessed in light of the legal rules that were "clearly established" at the time it was taken, id. at 818.

The operation of this standard, however, depends substantially upon the level of generality at which the relevant "legal [107 S.Ct. 3039] rule" is to be identified. For example, the right to due process of law is quite clearly established by the Due Process Clause, and thus there is a sense in which any action that violates that Clause (no matter how unclear it may be that the particular action is a violation) violates a clearly established right. Much the same could be said of any other constitutional or statutory violation. But if the test of "clearly established law" were to be applied at this level of generality, it would bear no relationship to the "objective legal reasonableness" that is the touchstone of Har...

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