Messerschmidt v. Millender

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Messerschmidt v. Millender.


Under what circumstances are police officers granted qualified immunity from civil lawsuits under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for an illegal search if they relied on a facially valid warrant later determined to be invalid and overbroad?

Should the Court reconsider the standard that the presumption that an officer acted reasonably by obtaining a warrant can be rebutted by showing that the warrant was “so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence unreasonable”?

Oral argument: 
December 5, 2011

Petitioner, detective Curt Messerschmidt, obtained and executed a warrant to search Respondent Augusta Millender’s residence. Millender sued Messerschmidt and other law enforcement officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that Messerschmidt and other officers violated her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by executing an invalid search warrant and unreasonably searching her home. The court determined that the warrant was unconstitutionally overbroad. Messerschmidt contends that he is nonetheless entitled to qualified immunity from civil liability because he relied on a warrant and acted in good faith. Millender, on the other hand, maintains that the officers’ reliance on the warrant was unreasonable, and therefore, they are not entitled to qualified immunity. The decision will determine the scope of qualified immunity for officers who have, in good faith, relied on warrants later determined to be invalid.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

This Court has held that police officers who procure and execute warrants later determined invalid are entitled to qualified immunity, and evidence obtained should not be suppressed, so long as the warrant is not "so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence entirely unreasonable." United States v. Leon , 468 U.S. 897, 920, 923 (1984); Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341, 344-45 (1986).

1. Under these standards, are officers entitled to qualified immunity where they obtained a facially valid warrant to search for firearms, firearm-related materials, and gang-related items in the residence of a gang member and felon who had threatened to kill his girlfriend and fired a sawed-off shotgun at her, and a district attorney approved the application, no factually on point case law prohibited the search, and the alleged over breadth in the warrant did not expand the scope of the search?

2. Should the Malley/Leon standards be reconsidered or clarified in light of lower courts' inability to apply them in accordance with their purpose of deterring police misconduct, resulting in imposition of liability on officers for good faith conduct and improper exclusion of evidence in criminal cases?


Shelly Kelly decided to end her romantic relationship with Jerry Ray Bowen, but she feared that Bowen might become physically violent.She requested that police to accompany her and provide protection to her as she retrieved her belongings from the residence she shared with Bowen. While Kelly was gathering her things from the house, the officers left to respond to an emergency call.

After the officers left, Bowen arrived, yelled at Kelly, and assaulted her. Kelly stated that she fled to her car and that Bowen followed her and threatened to shoot her with the sawed off shotgun he was carrying. Kelly attempted to drive off and reported that Bowen fired multiple shots at the vehicle as she drove away. Kelly reported the assault to the police and provided them with four photographs of Bowen, including one of him holding the sawed off shotgun. In response to this report, detective Curt Messerschmidt of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department applied for an arrest warrant for Bowen and a search warrant for the Millender residence, where Kelly reported Bowen was staying.Messerschmidt showed these warrants to his supervisors and a Deputy District Attorney before he submitted them to a magistrate who reviewed and approved both warrants.

On November 6, 2003, the Sheriff’s Department Special Weapons and Tactics (“SWAT”) team went to the Millender residence and executed the arrest and search warrants. The police entered the home and removed all ten occupants, including Augusta Millender. Officers Messerschmidt and Lawrence were present for the search of the house, but they did not aid in the search of the premises. Neither Bowen nor the sawed-off shotgun was found; however police officers did confiscate Millender’s own shotgun and accompanying ammunition.

Millender filed a suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Central District of California alleging violations of her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by the execution of the invalid search warrants. Messerschmidt and Lawrence (collectively “Messerschmidt”) argued that the search and arrest warrants were valid and moved for summary judgment. The district court held the arrest warrant was valid; however, it found that the search warrant was unconstitutionally overbroad because it authorized the search and seizure of any firearms or gang-related items. The court held that Messerschmidt was not entitled to qualified immunity. On appeal, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, and Messerschmidt appealed.

On June 27, 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari to determine whether Messerschmidt is entitled to qualified immunity under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for his actions in reliance on a warrant later determined to be unconstitutionally overbroad.


The principle of qualified immunity protects government officials from civil liability when a reasonable person in the official’s position would not have known that the actions clearly violated statutory or constitutional rights. Specifically, within the Fourth Amendment context, the Supreme Court held in Malley v. Briggs that an officer was entitled to qualified immunity and did not violate clearly established rights unless “a reasonably well-trained officer in [the defendant officer’s] position would have know that his affidavit failed to establish probable cause and that he should not have applied for the warrant.”

Clearly Established Rights and Objective Reasonability

Millender argues that it was clearly established that every item in a warrant must be supported by probable cause to be valid at the time Messerschmidt applied for a warrant. Millender argues that this standard was articulated in numerous places including, the text of the Fourth Amendment and Ninth Circuit case precedent. Millender maintains that even though there may not be a case with the exact factual circumstances here, the standard that every item in a search warrant must be supported by probable cause has been sufficiently stated to qualify as clearly established precedent.

Messerschmidt contends that even if his actions violated a clearly established right, he is still entitled to qualified immunity as long as his actions were objectively reasonable. Messerschmidt further argues that the objectively reasonable inquiry is analogous to the good-faith exception to rule excluding evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Messerschmidt asserts that in United States v. Leon, the Court enunciated the good-faith exceptionto the exclusionary rule and that the principles applied in that case govern the availability of qualified immunity. Messerschmidt asserts that the Court created the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule because excluding evidence when an officer acted in good faith in obtaining it would not disincentivize unconstitutional police behavior. Messerschmidt contends that in Malley, the Court held that the same analysis should apply to arrest warrants that lack probable cause. Messerschmidt argues that just like officer who acts in good faith in obtaining evidence, an officer who acts reasonably in submitting and executing a warrant should be entitled to qualified immunity. Messerschmidt maintains he is entitled to qualified immunity because his warrant application was not “so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence unreasonable.”

Millender argues that the policy behind the suppression cases should not control the decision to grant qualified immunity in a § 1983 claim. Millender maintains that the Supreme Court’s precedent does not grant immunity to officers who unreasonably rely on a warrant. Similarly, Millender argues that qualified immunity may not be available to an officer when a warrant is obviously invalid. Millender argues that the warrant here was clearly overbroad, and a reasonable officer would not have believed there was sufficient probable cause to support it, and therefore that Messerschmidt is not entitled to qualified immunity.

Messerschmidt argues that there is a presumption that the application for and obtaining of a warrant creates a presumption that an officer has acted in good faith, and therefore objectively reasonably, entitling him to qualified immunity unless there has been some ‘egregious misconduct’ by the officer. Messerschmidt submits that examples of egregious conduct include submitting a false affidavit to the magistrate, drafting a warrant that is so facially deficient because it does not include any description of the items sought or the location, or no reasonable officer would believe there was probable cause to support the warrant. Messerschmidt contends that no such egregious conduct occurred in this case. Messerschmidt argues that an officer could reasonably have believed that the warrant was supported by probable cause. Messerschmidt maintains that there was probable cause to search broadly for firearms because Bowen posed a threat to members of the public, particularly Kelly; Messerschmidt knew that Bowen was affiliated with a gang; and it was reasonable to infer that Bowen had multiple firearms given his history. Messerschmidt further argues that he should still be entitled to qualified immunity because, although the affidavit he wrote to support the warrant omitted some of Bowen’s criminal history, that information would only have bolstered the probable cause determination, and the magistrate’s issuance of the warrant was still valid.

Millender agrees that qualified immunity may be available for objectively reasonable actions; however, Millender contends that the Messerschmidt’s actions were not objectively reasonable. Millender argues that no reasonable officers would have believed that probable cause existed to support the broad authorization to search of the warrant. Millender asserts that the officers knew precisely which gun Bowen had used in the assault, so there was no probable cause to search for other weapons. Further, Millender argues the officers could not have reasonably believed other firearms could have been seized because guns are not generally contraband, and there was no other crime under investigation in which the other firearms could have been used. Millender also contends that no reasonable officer could have believed probable cause existed to search for gang paraphernalia. Millender maintains that membership in a gang is not a crime, and a reasonable officer would know that a search aimed finding articles to establish gang membership without relation to a specific crime is not supported by probable cause. Millender further argues that a court reviewing a warrant may not recognize information known to the officer but withheld from the magistrate, even if it arguably supported probable cause. Millender argues that when an officer does not provide all the necessary information to a magistrate to allow the magistrate to make an accurate determination of whether sufficient probable cause exists to support a warrant, an officer can no longer rely on that warrant in good faith.

The Scope of the Warrant

Messerschmidt contends that the Supreme Court has upheld warrants in which the warrant was determined to be overbroad but did not ultimately expand the area to be searched. Messerschmidt contends that under a warrant with narrower scope that only authorized a search for the sawed off shotgun would have entitled the officers to look for disassembled shotgun pieces, which could have been anywhere in the house; thus searching for other firearms had no real effect on the breadth of the search. Therefore, Messerschmidt maintains, giving the officers qualified immunity would be in line with precedent.

In contrast, Millender argues that whether petitioners could have gotten a valid warrant, with the same scope as the warrant at issue is irrelevant. Millender asserts that the Court has rejected the idea that a constitutionally defective warrant may be allowed simply because the defect did not expand its scope. Millender argues that scope of warrant was expanded because the officers searched for items relating to gang membership as well as firearms.

Revisiting the Malley/Leon Standard

Messerschmidt contends that showing that a warrant was “so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence unreasonable” should not be a way to rebut the presumption that an officer acted reasonably because it is unnecessary. Messerschmidt argues that officers are unlikely to apply for a warrant they no is obviously not supported by probable cause, and therefore this should not be a ground to rebut the presumption of reasonableness.

In contrast, Millender asserts that the “so lacking in indicia of probable cause” standard is necessary because the justice system has flaws, and magistrates may mistakenly approve warrant not supported by probable cause. Millender maintains that this standard is necessary to ensure the protection of Fourth Amendment rights.


The Supreme Court will determine whether qualified immunity shields law enforcement officers from civil liability for their actions in reliance on a search warrant later found to be unconstitutionally overbroad.

The Scope of Qualified Immunity

Messerschmidt argues that the doctrine of qualified immunity should protect police officers from liability when they have relied in good faith on a warrant regardless of whether a court later finds the warrant to be invalid. The United States, writing as amicus curiae, contends that in order to establish the proper balance between preventing officer impropriety and providing officers with the reasonable discretion necessary to enforce the law, qualified immunity must be available when officers act in good faith and reasonable reliance on a search warrant. The United States further maintains that an officer’s reliance on a warrant is only unreasonable when no reasonable officer could believe that the warrant is supported by probable cause. The United States argues that the fact that a legally trained magistrate approved the warrant should be enough to shield officers from liability for its execution; the United States contends that it would be unfair to require the officers to make the ultimate determination of whether a warrant is valid. The United States argues that refusing officers qualified immunity based on these facts will make it difficult for them to perform their jobs; if officers cannot rely on a the a magistrate’s approval as sufficient to ensure the validity of a warrant, it will result in officers second-guessing their actions for fear of being held civilly liable for a reasonable mistake, the very thing qualified immunity was meant to protect.

In contrast, Respondent Millender argues that allowing qualified immunity to shield an officer who has wrongly relied on a search warrant expands the normal scope of qualified immunity; Millender contends that it provides officers with too much protection, and may leave victims of unconstitutional police action without any recourse. Millender argues that the application of qualified immunity is meant to protect officers from liability only when they use ‘reasonable professional judgment’. Millender contends that no reasonable officer could have thought there was sufficient probable cause for the warrant. Millender also argues that denying the officers qualified immunity based on these facts will help deter future officers from executing illegal warrants.

The National Rifle Association (“NRA”), writing as amicus curiae, argues that because one can legally keep firearms, no one could reasonably believe a blanket search warrant extending to all firearms on a property is constitutional without sufficient probable cause. The NRA maintains that the officers’ actions violated clearly established rights and that extending qualified immunity to these officers protects the officers’ actions which the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments were meant to prohibit. The American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) argues that the Ninth Circuit’s determination that the warrant was facially invalid because it lacked sufficient probable cause further supports the assertion that Messerschmidt’s actions were not reasonable.

Deterring Misconduct

The United States argues that refusing to grant qualified immunity to Messerschmidt will not deter officer misconduct. The United States explains that because a magistrate is ultimately responsible for approving a warrant, once an officer has submitted the information for review, he has done everything in his power to conform to the requirements of the law. Thus, the United States argues, punishing the officer for the mistakes of the magistrate if the warrant is later found to lack probable cause will have no deterrent effect on the officer’s actions. The United States maintains that the only real effect of levying civil penalties against officers in Messerschmidt’s situation will be to inhibit officers from performing their duties.

Conversely, the ACLU argues that an officer who relied on an invalid warrant should not be shielded from liability simply because he submitted the application to a magistrate for review and approval. The ACLU contends that granting qualified immunity to an officer merely because the officer made a good-faith effort in submitting affidavits supporting otherwise unreasonable warrant undermines the officer’s professional responsibility to ensure that every search is legally permitted. The ACLU contends that in order to deter such unreasonable searches, qualified immunity must be denied to officers who apply for warrants not reasonably supported by probable cause, regardless of whether the warrant is later approved by a magistrate.


In this case the Supreme Court will determine whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity from civil liability if the officer executes a warrant that is later found to be invalid. Messerschmidt argues that qualified immunity should be available when officers act in reliance on a warrant because this shows his good faith effort to safeguard Fourth Amendment rights. In contrast, Millender contends that qualified immunity does not protect Messerschmidt because his reliance on a warrant was not objectively reasonable. This case will help to determine the extent to which qualified immunity is available to officers.

Edited by 


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