Malley v. Briggs
Annotate this Case
475 U.S. 335 (1986)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335 (1986)
Malley v. Briggs
Argued November 13, 1985
Decided March 5, 1986
475 U.S. 335
On the basis of the monitoring of two telephone calls pursuant to a court-authorized wiretap of the telephone of an acquaintance of respondents' daughter, petitioner Rhode Island state trooper (hereafter petitioner) prepared felony complaints charging respondents with possession of marihuana. The complaints were presented to a state judge, accompanied by arrest warrants and supporting affidavits. The judge signed the warrants and respondents were arrested, but the charges were subsequently dropped when the grand jury did not return an indictment. Respondents then brought a damages action in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that petitioner, in applying for the arrest warrants, violated their rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The case was tried to a jury, and the court, while granting a directed verdict for petitioner on other grounds at the close of respondents' evidence, stated that a police officer who believes that the facts stated in an affidavit are true and submits them to a neutral magistrate may be entitled to immunity under the "objective reasonableness" standard of Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U. S. 800. The Court of Appeals reversed.
Held: Petitioner is not entitled to absolute immunity, but only to qualified immunity from liability for damages. Pp. 475 U. S. 339-346.
(a) Neither the common law nor public policy affords any support for absolute immunity. Such immunity cannot be permitted on the basis that petitioner's function in seeking the arrest warrants was similar to that of a complaining witness, since complaining witnesses were not absolutely immune at common law. As a matter of public policy, qualified immunity provides ample protection to all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law. Nor is there any tradition of absolute immunity for a police officer requesting a warrant comparable to that afforded a prosecutor at common law. In the case of an officer applying for a warrant, the judicial process will, on the whole, benefit from a rule of qualified rather than absolute immunity. The Harlow "objective reasonableness" standard, which gives ample room for mistaken judgments, will not deter an officer from submitting an affidavit when there is probable cause to make an arrest, and defines the qualified
immunity accorded an officer whose request for a warrant allegedly caused an unconstitutional arrest. 475 U. S. 340-345.
(b) Petitioner cannot avoid liability under the rule of qualified immunity on the grounds that the act of applying for an arrest warrant is per se objectively reasonable where the officer believes that the facts alleged in his affidavit are true, and that he is entitled to rely on the judicial officer's judgment in issuing the warrant, and hence finding that probable cause exists. The question is whether a reasonably well-trained officer in petitioner's position would have known that his affidavit failed to establish probable cause, and that he should not have applied for the warrant. If such was the case, the application for the warrant was not objectively reasonable, because it created the unnecessary danger of an unlawful arrest. Pp. 475 U. S. 345-346.
748 F.2d 715, affirmed and remanded.
WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 475 U. S. 346.