Kornegay v. Cottingham

Decision Date23 July 1997
Docket NumberNo. 96-7423,96-7423
PartiesLynette KORNEGAY, on her behalf and as guardian ad litem for her two minor children; Andrea Alexander; Reginald Kornegay, Appellants, v. DeWayne COTTINGHAM, Detective, and certain unidentified officers of the Wilmington Police Force; Alfred Kaczarowski; John Ciratella; Scott Sowden; Liam Sullivan; William Browne; Bruce Coffiey; M.J. Browne; Sean Finerty; Richard Iardella; Marlyn Dietz; Officer Thomas Spell; Jack Fortney; Michael Rodriquez; Richard Brown; City of Wilmington.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

Charles Slanina (Argued), Biggs & Battaglia, Wilmington, DE, for Appellants.

William J. Rhodunda Jr. (Argued), City of Wilmington Law Department, Wilmington, DE, for Appellees.

Before: COWEN, McKEE, and JONES, * Circuit Judges.


McKEE, Circuit Judge.

Lynette Kornegay filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that various Delaware law enforcement officers conducted an illegal search of her home in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The district court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment based upon their assertion of qualified immunity. For the reasons that follow, we will reverse in part and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. 1


Kornegay and her minor children moved into a house located at 2611 N. Locust Street, Wilmington, Delaware in April 1994. The previous tenant, Dorothy Selby, had moved from that address in January 1994. Her nephew, Shannon Selby ("Selby"), occasionally listed his aunt's address as his own.

In April 1994, Selby became a suspect in the April 14, 1994 murder of Montel Morgan. Wilmington police detective DeWayne Cottingham headed that investigation and, after a preliminary investigation into Selby's whereabouts, incorrectly concluded that Selby was living at 2611 N. Locust Street. Acting upon that belief, Cottingham applied for and obtained a search warrant for that address. The warrant listed Selby and the murder weapon as the subjects of the search even though Selby was not considered the shooter. His alleged involvement in Morgan's murder was telling the actual shooter to shoot Morgan.

On May 5, 1994 at 6:00 a.m., members of the Crisis Management Tactical Team ("CMTT") executed the warrant which had been labeled "high risk" because Selby was wanted for Morgan's murder. The CMTT used a battering ram to break down the front door of 2611 N. Locust Street. Only after the door was broken in did the officers identify themselves by yelling "Police. Search Warrant." They entered each room with guns drawn yelling "Police. Search Warrant." In an upstairs bedroom, police found Kornegay, a male friend, Andre Alexander, and Kornegay's twenty-month old daughter in bed. The police ordered them not to move, and Alexander was dragged from the bed and handcuffed for a few minutes. Other officers brought Kornegay's seven-year old son from the adjacent room where he had been sleeping to his mother's room. He was harshly told to "get in to where they are."

At that point, an officer downstairs called out "all clear", and the CMTT left the house. Kornegay and Alexander were given clothes to change into from their pajamas and brought downstairs. Once downstairs, Kornegay was given a copy of the search warrant. Only then did she learn that the police were searching for a murder suspect named "Shannon Selby." In all, the CMTT remained in the house approximately five minutes. During that time, the officers restricted their search to behind furniture and the inside of closets. Only the front door was damaged. Kornegay and her children, however, were understandably frightened and upset by the incident.

Kornegay subsequently filed a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on behalf of herself and her children against the officers who executed the search. She alleged that the officers had violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments by relying on a warrant that was facially defective and then searching their home in an unreasonable manner. The officers moved for summary judgment arguing that they were protected under the doctrine of qualified immunity. The district court agreed and granted summary judgment. This appeal followed.

We have appellate jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 which gives us jurisdiction over "appeals from all final decisions of the district courts of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 1291.2 2


Kornegay contends that there are issues of material fact regarding the reasonableness of the officers' conduct in executing the search warrant and that the district court therefore erred in granting them summary judgment. Our standard of review is plenary.

Thus, '[we] review the district court's summary judgment determination de novo, applying the same standard as the district court.... [I]n all cases summary judgment should be granted if, after drawing all reasonable inferences from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the court concludes that there is no genuine issue of material fact to be resolved at trial and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'

Spain v. Gallegos, 26 F.3d 439, 446 (3d Cir.1994)(quoting Petruzzi's IGA Supermarkets, Inc. v. Darling-Delaware Co., 998 F.2d 1224, 1230 (3d Cir.1993)).


"Government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages if their conduct does not violate clearly established ... constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Shea v. Smith, 966 F.2d 127, 130 (3d Cir.1992).

"[I]t is inevitable that law enforcement officers will in some cases reasonably but mistakenly conclude that [their conduct was lawful]." Orsatti v. New Jersey State Police, 71 F.3d 480, 483 (3d Cir.1995). Accordingly, we do not inquire into whether these defendants violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Instead, we must determine if a reasonable fact finder could conclude that their conduct did not violate clearly established law of which a reasonable person would have known. Qualified immunity turns on the reasonableness of the officers' belief that their conduct was legal not its legality per se. "To determine reasonableness, a reviewing court must ask 'whether a reasonable person could have believed the defendant's actions to be lawful in light of clearly established law and the information he possessed.' " Parkhurst v. Trapp, 77 F.3d 707, 712 (3d Cir.1996) (citation omitted); see also Shea, 966 F.2d at 130 ("[A]n official who conducts an illegal search may not be held personally liable if he could have reasonably believed that the search comported with the Fourth Amendment."). " 'Clearly established rights' are those with contours sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right." Id. Since the instant challenge focuses in large part upon the officers' failure to knock and announce their presence, we must determine the extent to which the "knock and announce" rule was a "clearly established" right when they searched Kornegay's home.

A. The "Knock and Announce" Rule

The Fourth Amendment protects "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." Wilson v. Arkansas, 514 U.S. 927, 931, 115 S.Ct. 1914, 1916, 131 L.Ed.2d 976 (1995). The "commonlaw requirement that police officers entering a dwelling must knock on the door and announce their identity and purpose before attempting forcible entry" is incorporated into the Fourth Amendment's guarantees. Richards v. Wisconsin, --- U.S. ----, ----, 117 S.Ct. 1416, 1418, 137 L.Ed.2d 615 (1997). 3 This rule has come to be known as the "knock-and-announce" requirement and it "strikes the appropriate balance between the legitimate law enforcement concerns at issue in the execution of search warrants and the individual privacy interests affected by no-knock entries." Id. at ---- - ----, 117 S.Ct. at 1421-22.

First, it reduces the likelihood of injury to police officers, who might be mistaken, upon an unannounced intrusion into a home, for someone with no right to be there. Second, it seeks to prevent needless damage to private property. Finally, it embodies respect for the individual's right of privacy, which is to be imposed upon as little as possible in making an entry to search or arrest.

United States v. Nolan, 718 F.2d 589, 596 (3d Cir.1983) (citations omitted).

In United States v. Gable, 401 F.2d 765 (3d Cir.1968), police obtained a warrant to search the defendant's house for gambling equipment. They attempted to gain entry to the house by inserting a crowbar into the door and prying it open without first knocking or announcing their presence or purpose. As they were forcing the door, the defendant voluntarily opened it. We held that the entry was illegal because police failed to announce their purpose before using the crowbar to pry the door open. That case was decided nearly thirty years before the search at issue here.

Even the highest court in the state where the instant search was executed had years ago declared a search unreasonable when police failed to comply with the knock-and-announce requirement. See Tatman v. Delaware, 320 A.2d 750 (Del.1974). In Tatman, police obtained a search warrant which they executed at 6:00 a.m. They knocked on the street door to the multi-family dwelling, waited a few seconds, and then used sledge hammers to break the door down. Police then went to the second-floor apartment described in the warrant and broke into that apartment without knocking or announcing their purpose. The court declared "[t]he no-knock search here was unreasonable and violative of Fourth Amendment requirements. Prior to the entry of a residence, the police officer is required by the common law, in executing a warrant, to signify the cause of his...

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