The Court of Appeals held that the deputies’ SWAT-style raid constituted unlawful seizure and violated the Fourth Amendment but that the deputies did not violate clearly established law regarding excessive force to execute a search warrant and were, therefore, entitled to qualified immunity.
AFFIRMED in part, REVERSED in part, and REMANDED.
On August 9, 2011, Robert Harte and his children bought a small bag of supplies from a gardening store. Unbeknownst to him, he had been observed doing so by police, and because of this single visit, became a suspect in a large-scale marijuana investigation. The police “investigated” Harte by searching his trash, in which they found wet green vegetation—which turned out to be tea leaves—but which police claimed to be marijuana (according to alleged field tests that were not recorded and never confirmed by a lab).
Based solely on this evidence, seven police officers conducted a SWAT-style raid, brandishing Glocks and assault rifles, stormed the Harte family’s home, and kept the entire family—including two children—under armed guard for two-and-a-half hours, despite finding no evidence whatsoever of illegal activity.
Robert Harte and Adlynn Harte, individually and on behalf of their minor children, brought 1983 action and state-law claims against the county board of commissioners, the county sheriff, deputy county sheriffs, and a state highway patrol officer for unlawful home entry, search, and seizure. The district court for the District of Kansas granted summary judgement on the basis of qualified immunity to Defendants. The Harte family appealed.
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Plaintiffs adequately claimed Fourth Amendment violations. In response to the defense that the SWAT-style search and seizure was permitted by a warrant, the Court explained, “a state officer is not automatically shielded from Section 1983 liability merely because a judicial officer approves a warrant” for, “if there is substantial evidence to support deliberate falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth, and the exclusion of false statements would undermine the existence of probable cause, a warrant is invalid.” Because the Court concluded that the officers fabricated the ‘positive’ field tests and considering Harte’s one trip to the garden store is insufficient to establish probable cause, it can be said the record is sufficient to support each of the following constitutional claims: 1) an unlawful search, conducted pursuant to a false and misleading search-warrant affidavit and 2) an unlawful seizure—
[A] detention represents only an incremental intrusion on personal liberty when the search of a home has been authorized by a valid warrant.” There was no probable cause at any step of the investigation. Not at the garden shop, not at the gathering of the tea leaves, and certainly not at the analytical stage when the officers willfully ignored directions to submit any presumed results to a laboratory for analysis. Full stop.
Harte v. Board of Commissioners, 864 F.3d 1154 (10th Cir. 2017)
The Court also found Plaintiff to have adequately argued claim 3) use of excessive force in carrying out the search. The Court determined that the search “ran afoul of the Fourth Amendment,” and that it was both unreasonable, particularly in its detaining minors, and not supported by probable cause. The opinion noted, “not only did the Hartes lack any history of violent crime, they lacked any criminal history at all. They were well-respected community members with legal and law-enforcement backgrounds, who had previously been given a high security clearance at the CIA.” Under the standard set by the facts of this case, many more homes of innocent citizens across America would become vulnerable and subject to unconstitutional government intrusion.
Even though the Court found Defendants to have egregiously violated Plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment right, the Court still AFFIRMED the district court’s decision to grant officers qualified immunity. The Court argued the Hartes’ fail to cite cases concluding that “law-enforcement officers lack probable cause when relying on two positive field-test results for marijuana. Thus, even “though the Hartes adequately challenged the reliability of the Lynn Peavey KN-reagent field test, and other field tests in general, no court has gone so far as to prohibit law-enforcement officers from relying on field tests to establish probable cause.” In other words, because there is no caselaw with facts functionally identical to the facts of the present case, the law deeming the officers’ actions as unconstitutional was not clearly established beyond debate such that Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.