Carroll v. Carman: New Supreme Court Qualified Immunity Decision On Warrantless Entries
In Carroll v. Carman, 135 S. Ct. 348 (2014)(per curiam), revg, Carman v. Carroll, 749 F.3d 192 (3rd Cir. 2014), a police officer was sued under § 1983 and the Fourth Amendment for entering plaintiffs’ property in July 2009 by going into their backyard and onto their deck without a warrant. The police officer argued that his entry was lawful under the “knock and talk” exception to the warrant requirement because he stayed on that portion of plaintiffs’ property that the general public was allowed to go on.
The Third Circuit held that the officer violated the Fourth Amendment since he did not go first to the front door as required (so the Third Circuit read its own precedent as saying) by the “knock and talk” exception. It also ruled that the officer violated clearly established Fourth Amendment law.
Reversing, the Supreme Court held that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity because clearly settled law did not exist at the time. Even assuming that a single Third Circuit decision could suffice for this purpose, the decision that the Third Circuit cited did not stand for the proposition that the Third Circuit said it did.
The Court went on: “The Third Circuit’s decision is even more perplexing in comparison to the decisions of other federal and state courts, which have rejected the rule the Third Circuit adopted here.” However, the Court emphasized that it was not deciding the constitutional merits here but only qualified immunity.
What is interesting to me about this decision is the Court’s non-deferential approach to the Third Circuit’s understanding of its own precedent. The Court may also have signaled that it disagreed with the Third Circuit’s rule on the merits, although it said that it did not decide the constitutional merits.
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