Anderson v. Creighton - 483 U.S. 635 (1987)
U.S. Supreme Court
Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635 (1987)
Anderson v. Creighton
Argued February 23, 1987
Decided June 25, 1987
483 U.S. 635
Petitioner, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, participated with other law enforcement officers in a warrantless search of respondents' home. The search was conducted because petitioner believed that one Dixon, who was suspected of a bank robbery committed earlier that day, might be found there, but he was not. Respondents filed a state court action against petitioner, asserting a claim for damages under the Fourth Amendment. Petitioner removed the suit to Federal District Court and then filed a motion for dismissal or summary judgment, arguing that the Fourth Amendment claim was barred by his qualified immunity from civil damages liability. Before any discovery occurred, the court granted summary judgment on the ground that the search was lawful. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the search's lawfulness could not be determined on summary judgment, because factual disputes precluded deciding as a matter of law that the search was supported by probable cause and exigent circumstances. The court also held that petitioner was not entitled to summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds, since the right he allegedly violated -- the right of persons to be protected from warrantless searches of their homes unless the searching officers have probable cause and there are exigent circumstances -- was clearly established.
1. Petitioner is entitled to summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds if he can establish as a matter of law that a reasonable officer could have believed that the search comported with the Fourth Amendment, even though it actually did not. Whether an official protected by qualified immunity may be held personally liable for an allegedly unlawful official action generally turns on the "objective legal reasonableness" of the action, assessed in light of the legal rules that were "clearly established" at the time the action was taken. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U. S. 800. In order to conclude that the right which the official allegedly violated is "clearly established," the contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right. The Court of Appeals -- which apparently considered only the fact that the right to be free from warrantless searches of one's home unless the searching officers have probable cause
and there are exigent circumstances was clearly established -- erred by refusing to consider the argument that it was not clearly established that the circumstances with which petitioner was confronted did not constitute probable cause and exigent circumstances. The relevant question here is the objective question whether a reasonable officer could have believed petitioner's warrantless search to be lawful, in light of clearly established law and the information the searching officers possessed. Petitioner's subjective beliefs about the search are irrelevant. Pp. 483 U. S. 638-641.
2. There is no merit to respondents' argument that it is inappropriate to give officials alleged to have violated the Fourth Amendment -- and thus necessarily to have unreasonably searched or seized -- the protection of a qualified immunity intended only to protect reasonable official action. Such argument is foreclosed by the fact that this Court has previously extended qualified immunity to officials who were alleged to have violated the Fourth Amendment. Also without merit is respondents' suggestion that Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U. S. 511, be overruled by holding that qualified immunity may never be extended to officials who conduct unlawful warrantless searches. Nor is there any merit to respondents' contention that no immunity should be provided to police officers who conduct unlawful warrantless searches of innocent third parties' homes in search of fugitives. Pp. 483 U. S. 642-646.
766 F.2d 1269, vacated and remanded.
SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, p. 483 U. S. 647.