The U.S. Supreme Court Roughs Up The Third Circuit in Per Curium Decision.

Oakland CA (originally published on Nov. 6, 2014).  To prevail on a federal civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C. section 1983, a plaintiff must overcome a state official’s qualified immunity. Qualified immunity shields the official unless she violates a clearly established statutory or constitutional right.

In a somewhat unusual per curiam decision issued on Monday of this week, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed a panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on the issue of qualified immunity. The decision is in Carroll v. Carman, No. 14-212 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Nov. 10, 2014).

In Carroll, the Third Circuit itself reversed a jury verdict finding that a police officer was entitled to qualified immunity in a Section 1983 lawsuit based on an illegal search of the plaintiff’s property. The property was on a corner and the officers had approached it at the rear porch because the porch “‘looked like a customary entryway.’”

The Third Circuit rejected the jury’s application of the “knock and talk” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. That exception allows an officer to enter portions of private property that are open to the public to knock on the door and speak with occupants.   The intermediate court reasoned it was clearly established that the exception only applies when an officer approaches a front door.

The issue considered by the Supreme Court was whether the Third Circuit erred in concluding as a matter of law that the officer had violated a clearly established right. The Third Circuit had relied on a single decision – its own decision in Estate of Smith v. Marasco, 318 F.3d 497 (2003).  It reasoned that, under Marasco it was clearly established that the “knock and talk” exception only applies where an officer first approaches a front door.

The Supreme Court squarely rejected this reasoning. It explained that Marasco merely stands for the proposition that an unsuccessful encounter at the front door does not automatically mean an officer can approach the back door. In its words, “Marasco simply did not answer the question whether a ‘knock and talk’ must begin at the front door when visitors may also go to the back door.”

The Supreme Court also looked to other circuits and state courts, which had upheld warrantless searches where officers had approached entrances other than the front entrance that looked like customary entrances for visitors. It reasoned that the Third Circuit, Seventh Circuit, 9th Circuit and the Supreme Court of New Jersey had each upheld searches in circumstances similar to those in Marasco.

The rough treatment received by the Third Circuit in Carroll signals that the Supreme Court takes seriously the issue of whether a right is clearly established when attempting to overcome a state official’s qualified immunity defense.  This is at least the second time in about two years the high court has considered this issue. See also Reichle v. Howard, 566 U.S. ___ ___ (2012). It also signals that intermediate courts should think twice about second-guessing a jury’s finding that a state official acted reasonably under all of the circumstances.

John Claassen practices civil litigation from the offices of Claassen, P.C. in Oakland, California.  For more information about the firm, please click here.  While this blog entry is published for informational purposes, portions of this blog post may constitute "communications" within the meaning of California Rule of Professional Conduct 1-400.  Thus, as a possible "Advertisement" it is not intended to constitute legal advice.  Similarly, no statement made in this blog post is intended as a guarantee, warranty, or promise about the outcome of any litigation matter taken on by the firm.  This Advertisement is not intended for any matter that would require the rendition of legal services outside of the State of California or under the laws of any jurisdiction outside of the State of California. Copyright 2014-15. All rights reserved.