In the course of my section 1983 presentations to attorneys and judges, I have occasionally referred to the Ninth Circuit as “the circuit that the Supreme Court loves to hate” because the Court appears to reverse the Ninth Circuit with greater frequency than it does other circuits.
The January 23, 2012, decision in Ryburn v. Huff, 132 S. Ct. — (2012)(per curiam), is a good example of this phenomenon that is made even better by the fact that the Court granted certiorari and summarily reversed the Ninth Circuit solely on the basis of the police officer defendants’ petition for writ of certiorari and the plaintiffs’ response.
The Facts in Ryburn
In Ryburn, four police officers responded to a call from a public high school about a rumor involving a student who allegedly wrote a letter threatening to “shoot up” the school. The officers, through interviews, learned that the student had been bullied by other students, that the student had absences from school and that one of his classmates believed he was capable of carrying out the alleged threat. After going to the student’s home and unsuccessfully trying to interview the student there–no one answered the door–one of the officers called the home phone, but still no one answered. The officer then called the cell phone of the student’s mother who did answer and informed the officer that she was inside the house and that her son was there with her. The officer then told the mother that they were outside and wanted to speak with her but she hung up the phone.
A few minutes later both mother and son walked out of the house. Another officer told them that they were there to talk to the student about the rumors, to which he responded that he was aware of the rumors but could not believe that the officers were there for that purpose. The first officer then asked whether the conversation could continue inside the house, but the mother refused. He then asked the mother whether there were any guns in the house but the mother did not answer. According to the finding of the district court, she immediately turned around and began running into the house. The officer was “scared” because he did not know what was in the house and he had “seen too many officers killed.”
The first officer then entered the home behind the mother, followed by the second officer who said he was concerned about the first officer’s safety and he did not want to leave the first officer alone. Two other officers–not parties to the petition for certiorari because the Ninth Circuit had granted summary judgment in their favor–then entered the home on the assumption that the mother gave her consent. The officers stayed in the home for 5 or 10 minutes, during which time the student’s father challenged their authority to be there. The officers did not search the property, the parents or the student. But they did determine that the rumor was false, and reported their conclusion to the school.
The Lawsuit and the Lower Court Opinions
The parents then sued the four police officers alleging that their Fourth Amendment rights were violated when the officers entered their home without a warrant. The district court ruled for the defendants after a bench trial at which the district court determined that the mother responded to the officer’s question about guns in the home by immediately turning around and running into the home. The district court found that under the circumstances of this “rapidly evolving incident” a reasonable officer could have believed that there were weapons in the home and that family members or the officers were in danger.
A divided Ninth Circuit panel affirmed as to the two officers who entered the home on the assumption that the mother consented, but reversed as to the two officers who first entered the home. In the panel’s view, these officers acted unreasonably because the mother “merely asserted her right to end her conversation with the officers and returned to her home.” The dissenting judge maintained that the majority set out a “sanitized version” of what happened and that a reasonable officer could have believed that he was justified in entering the home without a warrant to ensure there was no gun in the home.
In the Supreme Court: Summary Grant and Reversal
The Court, per curiam, had no difficulty in reversing the Ninth Circuit panel: “No decision of this Court has found a Fourth Amendment violation on facts even roughly comparable to those present in this case. On the contrary, some of our opinions may be read as pointing in the opposition [sic] direction.”
The Court criticized the Ninth Circuit panel on four grounds.
First, the panel, while purporting to accept the district court’s findings, in fact changed them.
Second, the panel incorrectly took the view that because the mother’s response to the question whether there were any guns in the home was lawful, it should not have been a matter of concern to the officers.
Third, the panel’s analysis of the sequence of events “was entirely unrealistic.”
Fourth, and finally, the panel should have understood that “judges should be cautious about second-guessing a police officer’s assessment, made on the scene, of the danger presented by a particular situation.”
In short, the officers had an objectively reasonable belief that “violence was imminent.” They were thus entitled to qualified immunity.