Supreme Court Opinions? Already?!

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Despite being early in the term, the Supreme Court has already issued two opinions involving state and local government.

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As the Supreme Court’s term only began on October 6 it is a little early for the Court to be issuing opinions except in the instance of per curiam (unauthored) opinions where the Court didn’t hear oral argument.  The Court did just that this week.  Both of the cases involve state and local government.

In Carroll v. Carman the Court held that the Third Circuit improperly denied qualified immunity to a police officer who “knocked and talked” to a homeowner at his back door, rather than his front door, without a warrant.

The “knock and talk” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement allows police officers to knock on a resident’s door and speak to its inhabitants as any other person would.  Officer Carroll knocked on the Carmans’ back door, which he described as looking like a customary entryway, in search of a man who had stolen a car and two loaded guns.

State and local government officials can be sued for money damages in their individual capacity if they violate a person’s constitutional or federal statutory rights. Qualified immunity protects government officials from such lawsuits where the law they violated isn’t “clearly established.”

The Court concluded that it wasn’t clearly established that the “knock and talk” exception only applied to knocks at the front door.  The only circuit precedent the Third Circuit pointed to didn’t hold that knocking on the front door is required before officers go onto other parts of the property open to visitors.  And other federal and state courts rejected the Third Circuit’s approach.

Notably the Court declined to decide the underlying legal issue in this case of whether police can “knock and talk” at any entrance open to visitors rather than only the front door.

In Johnson v. City of Shelby, Mississippi the Court held that police officers did not have to invoke 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in their constitutional claim against Shelby.

42 U.S.C. § 1983 is a vehicle for private parties to sue state and local governments for constitutional violations.  In this case police officers alleged in their complaint that the city’s board of aldermen fired them for bringing to light the criminal activities of one alderman in violation of their Fourteenth Amendment due process rights.

The Fifth Circuit dismissed the officers’ complaint because they didn’t invoke § 1983 reasoning that “[c]ertain consequences flow from claims under § 1983, such as the unavailability of respondeat superior [employer] liability, which bears on the qualified immunity analysis.”  The Supreme Court pointed out that the Fifth Circuit was confused in its perception of the officers’ suit which was against the city; unlike a municipal officer, a city cannot invoke qualified immunity.  More generally, the Court stated that federal pleading rules don’t require a complaint to be dismissed because it imperfectly states the legal theory supporting it.

Soronen_Pic (2)About the Author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.