Hot Pursuit for a “Minor” Offense
In early November, the United States Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion in Stanton v. Sims reversing the 9th Circuit Court’s decision that a police officer was not entitled to qualified immunity when he was in “hot pursuit” of a suspect wanted for a minor-albeit jailable-offense. Unfortunately, the important issue of whether an officer violates the Fourth Amendment when he enters a home in pursuit of a suspect wanted for a misdemeanor was not answered by the Supreme Court justices. As such, the status of that issue remains in a state of uncertainty.
At 1:00 am on May 27, 2008, La Mesa, CA officers received a call about an unknown disturbance involving a person with a baseball bat. Officer Mike Stanton and his partner responded to the call. About the same time, Drendolyn Sims went outside her home after hearing a commotion next door. She asked the individuals to quiet down. She then returned to the gate of a six-foot tall wooden privacy fence surrounding her home and claims she was speaking with her guest, Nicholas Patrick.
The officers, in full uniform and driving a marked squad car, arrived at the location. Officer Stanton was familiar with the neighborhood known as an area harboring gang violence. The officers noticed three men walking in the street. Upon seeing the squad car, two of the men walked to a nearby apartment complex. The third individual, Patrick, crossed the street in front of the police car and quickly walked toward a residence. There is no evidence that Officer Stanton knew at the time the home belonged to Patrick or someone else.
Officer Stanton did not observe Patrick with a baseball bat, but found his behavior suspicious and decided to investigate. When Officer Stanton exited his squad car, he yelled loud enough for all in the area to hear, “Police,” and ordered Patrick to stop. Instead of stopping, Patrick looked directly at Officer Stanton, ignored the lawful order and walked quickly through the front gate of a fence enclosing Sims’ yard. The gate closed behind Patrick and Officer Stanton was no longer able to see him. Fearing for his safety and knowing that Patrick had committed a jailable misdemeanor under California Penal Code § 148, Officer Stanton quickly decided to kick open the gate in pursuit of Patrick. Unbeknownst to Officer Stanton, Sims was standing behind the gate after it was kicked open. The gate struck her causing her to fall to the front stairs. She sustained a laceration on her forehead, an injury to her shoulder, and was taken to a hospital.
Sims filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Officer Stanton alleging that she was the victim of excessive force and an unlawful search. She also alleged various claims under California state law. Officer Stanton filed a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity which the district court granted. Sims appealed the district court’s decision on her unconstitutional search claim and the grant of qualified immunity.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Officer Stanton’s warrantless entry into Sims yard was unconstitutional and that he was not entitled to qualified immunity. Officer Stanton appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Decision
The Supreme Court only addressed the appellate court’s holding that Officer Stanton was not entitled to qualified immunity. It stated, “the doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Further, “qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments and protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”
The Court found no evidence in the case that Officer Stanton knowingly violated the Constitution. Instead, the question was whether, in light of precedent existing at the time, he was “plainly incompetent” in entering Sims’ yard to pursue a fleeing suspect.
The Supreme Court took issue with the 9th Circuit’s holding that Officer Stanton was plainly incompetent in pursuing Patrick under the circumstances when several federal and state courts nationwide were (and still are) harshly divided on the question “whether an officer with probable cause to arrest a suspect for a misdemeanor may enter a home without a warrant while in hot pursuit of that suspect.” For example, Ohio and New Hampshire state courts have held that police officers are permitted to enter a home without a warrant for misdemeanor offenses. On the other hand, the Tenth Circuit federal court and Arkansas state court have held that officers are not permitted to enter a home under such circumstances. The Supreme Court also noted that there were other courts that found that officers are at least entitled to qualified immunity under those circumstances because the constitutional violation is not clearly established.
Curiously, while recognizing the conflict amongst the various courts, the Supreme Court refused to address the issue head on–“We do not express any view on whether Officer Stanton’s entry into Sim’s yard in pursuit of Patrick was unconstitutional.” Instead, it found that the conflict in the lower courts could not render the constitutionality of the search “beyond debate.” As such, the Supreme Court held that even if Officer Stanton was mistaken in believing his actions were constitutional, he was not “plainly incompetent” and therefore he was entitled to qualified immunity.
So, what does this mean for the street officer faced with the sudden decision to pursue a suspect into a home without a warrant? It’s safe to say that a hot pursuit of a fleeing felon into a home without a warrant would be constitutional. One can also assume that chasing a recent driver of a vehicle into a home for failing to wear a seat belt would qualify as an unlawful warrantless entry. But what about those areas in between–the recent driver wanted for driving under the influence? The person resisting a police officer’s lawful arrest?
Officers need to be familiar with the law of their respective states and/or federal courts. That being said, if a legitimate mistake is made—similar to what Officer Stanton did in this case—at least there is a basis for a qualified immunity argument.
 __ S.Ct. __, 2013 WL 5878007 (November 4, 2013).
 A person violates California Penal Code § 148 when he willfully resists, delays, or obstructs an officer in the discharge or attempt to discharge any duty of his or her office, a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year and by a fine of up to $1000.
 Stanton v. Sims, 2013 WL 5878007 at * 2.
 The issue of whether the yard was “curtilage” or not was not an issue for the Supreme Court. It was assumed that the yard was protectable under the Fourth Amendment.
 The Tenth Circuit court of appeals encompasses the following federal courts: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Kansas.
 Stanton, at *5.