Nice Try, Juror Number 4
Crimes & Misdemeanors

Third Department Considers Whether Qualified Immunity Shielded Defendants

Colao v Mills, 2007 NY Slip Op 03230, is a Third Department case wherein the plaintiff commenced a 1983 action alleging that the defendant sheriffs unlawfully searched and seized his home and property in violation of the 4th Amendment. 

The defendants responded to a 911 call from the plaintiff's girlfriend on the date in question.  She indicated that  the plaintiff had weapons and alcohol in his residence and that he was chasing her and wanted to kill her. She requested assistance in entering the plaintiff's home and retrieving her belongings.  When the deputies arrived, she was no longer there.  There was clearly evidence of a struggle, and the plaintiff alleged that his girlfriend had run away up the driveway.

Up to 5 officers remained on his property for several hours while they searched for his girlfriend and used his telephone a number of times.  There was some dispute as to whether he consented to allow them to search his home.  His girlfriend was located alive the next day.  He subsequently brought this action.

At issue was whether the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity thus shielding them from liability for their actions on the evening in question.   In reaching its determination, the Court first explained the applicable legal standards:

Government officials performing discretionary functions are entitled to qualified immunity, thereby shielding them from civil liability, as long as their actions did not violate the plaintiff's clearly established legal rights; it must be objectively reasonable for the defendants to have believed that their conduct as related to the plaintiff was lawful under the circumstances...The two parts of this inquiry are whether plaintiff suffered a constitutional violation at the hands of defendants and, if so, whether the constitutional right was clearly established at the time so that any reasonable officer would clearly recognize that his or her conduct was unlawful in that situation...Immunity should ordinarily be determined by the court as a matter of law early in the case.  (Internal citations omitted).

The Court then considered whether the exigent circumstances exception to the 4th Amendment applied to the defendants' actions.  The Court concluded that it was applicable in this case:

It was objectively reasonable for police officers possessing this information to believe that Bergman could be inside plaintiff's house, she could be injured and they needed to find her quickly. Under the circumstances, defendants were justified in entering plaintiff's home and searching for Bergman...

The Court then stated that it was unable to determine as a matter of law whether the defendants exceeded the scope of their authority by remaining on the property for several hours, but concluded that qualified immunity protected them nevertheless since "even assuming that defendants exceeded the scope of the emergency and thus violated plaintiff's constitutional rights by remaining on his property and answering his phone, a rational jury could not find that defendants' judgment in this regard "was so flawed that no reasonable officer would have made a similar choice..."

Under the circumstances of this case, I'm inclined to agree with the Court.  Given the evidence of a struggle, had the officers simply taken the plaintiff's word as to what had happened without investigating further, they'd have been in awfully deep the next day had she turned up severely injured, or even dead.  In my opinion, the deputies' actions were reasonable under the circumstances.

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