SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
JEREMY CARROLL v.
ANDREW CARMAN, et
on petition for writ of certiorari to the
united states court of appeals for the third circuit
No. 14–212. Decided November 10,
On July 3, 2009, the Pennsylvania State Police
Department received a report that a man named Michael Zita had
stolen a car and two loaded handguns. The report also said that
Zita might have fled to the home of Andrew and Karen Carman. The
department sent Officers Jeremy Carroll and Brian Roberts to the
Carmans’ home to investigate. Neither officer had been to the
home before. 749 F.3d 192, 195 (CA3 2014).
The officers arrived in separate patrol cars
around 2:30 p.m. The Carmans’ house sat on a corner
lot—the front of the house faced a main street while the left
(as viewed from the front) faced a side street. The officers
initially drove to the front of the house, but after discovering
that parking was not available there, turned right onto the side
street. As they did so, they saw several cars parked side-by-side
in a gravel parking area on the left side of the Carmans’
property. The officers parked in the “first available
spot,” at “the far rear of the property.”
(quoting Tr. 70 (Apr. 8, 2013)).
The officers exited their patrol cars. As they
looked toward the house, the officers saw a small structure (either
a carport or a shed) with its door open and a light on. Id.,
at 71. Thinking someone might be inside, Officer Carroll walked
over, “poked [his] head” in, and said
“Pennsylvania State Police.” 749 F. 3d, at 195
(quoting Tr. 71 (Apr. 8, 2013); alteration in original). No one was
there, however, so the officers continued walking toward the house.
As they approached, they saw a sliding glass door that opened onto
a ground-level deck. Carroll thought the sliding glass door
“looked like a customary entryway,” so he and Officer
Roberts decided to knock on it. 749 F. 3d, at 195 (quoting Tr.
83 (Apr. 8, 2013)).
As the officers stepped onto the deck, a man
came out of the house and “belligerent[ly] and aggressively
approached” them. 749 F. 3d, at 195. The officers
identified themselves, explained they were looking for Michael
Zita, and asked the man for his name. The man refused to answer.
Instead, he turned away from the officers and appeared to reach for
his waist. Id.,
at 195–196. Carroll grabbed the
man’s right arm to make sure he was not reaching for a
weapon. The man twisted away from Carroll, lost his balance, and
fell into the yard. Id.,
At that point, a woman came out of the house and
asked what was happening. The officers again explained that they
were looking for Zita. The woman then identified herself as Karen
Carman, identified the man as her husband, Andrew Carman, and told
the officers that Zita was not there. In response, the officers
asked for permission to search the house for Zita. Karen Carman
consented, and everyone went inside. Ibid.
The officers searched the house, but did not
find Zita. They then left. The Carmans were not charged with any
The Carmans later sued Officer Carroll in
Federal District Court under 42 U. S. C. §1983.
Among other things, they alleged that Carroll unlawfully entered
their property in violation of the Fourth Amendment when he went
into their backyard and onto their deck without a warrant. 749
F. 3d, at 196.
At trial, Carroll argued that his entry was
lawful under the “knock and talk” exception to the
warrant requirement. That exception, he contended, allows officers
to knock on someone’s door, so long as they stay “on
those portions of [the] property that the general public is allowed
to go on.” Tr. 7 (Apr. 8, 2013). The Carmans responded that a
normal visitor would have gone to their front door, rather than
into their backyard or onto their deck. Thus, they argued, the
“knock and talk” exception did not apply.
At the close of Carroll’s case in chief,
the parties each moved for judgment as a matter of law. The
District Court denied both motions, and sent the case to a jury. As
relevant here, the District Court instructed the jury that the
“knock and talk” exception “allows officers
without a warrant to knock on a resident’s door or otherwise
approach the residence seeking to speak to the inhabitants, just as
any private citizen might.” Id.
, at 24 (Apr. 10,
2013). The District Court further explained that “officers
should restrict their movements to walkways, driveways, porches and
places where visitors could be expected to go.” Ibid.
The jury then returned a verdict for Carroll.
The Carmans appealed, and the Court of Appeals
for the Third Circuit reversed in relevant part. The court held
that Officer Carroll violated the Fourth Amendment as a matter of
law because the “knock and talk” exception
“requires that police officers begin their encounter at the
front door, where they have an implied invitation to go.” 749
F. 3d, at 199. The court also held that Carroll was not
entitled to qualified immunity because his actions violated clearly
established law. Ibid.
The court therefore reversed the
District Court and held that the Carmans were entitled to judgment
as a matter of law.
Carroll petitioned for certiorari. We grant the
petition and reverse the Third Circuit’s determination that
Carroll was not entitled to qualified immunity.
A government official sued under §1983 is
entitled to qualified immunity unless the official violated a
statutory or constitutional right that was clearly established at
the time of the challenged conduct. See Ashcroft
, 563 U. S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 3). A
right is clearly established only if its contours are sufficiently
clear that “a reasonable official would understand that what
he is doing violates that right.” Anderson
, 483 U.S.
, 640 (1987). In other words, “existing precedent must
have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond
, 563 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at
9). This doctrine “gives government officials breathing room
to make reasonable but mistaken judgments,” and
“protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who
knowingly violate the law.’ ” Id.,
(slip op., at 12) (quoting Malley
, 341 (1986)).
Here the Third Circuit cited only a single case
to support its decision that Carroll was not entitled to qualified
immunity—Estate of Smith
318 F.3d 497
(CA3 2003). Assuming for the sake of argument that
a controlling circuit precedent could constitute clearly
established federal law in these circumstances, see Reichle
, 566 U. S. ___, ___ (2012) (slip op., at 7),
does not clearly establish that Carroll violated the
Carmans’ Fourth Amendment rights.
, two police officers went to
Robert Smith’s house and knocked on the front door. When
Smith did not respond, the officers went into the backyard, and at
least one entered the garage. 318 F. 3d, at 519. The court
acknowledged that the officers’ “entry into the
curtilage after not receiving an answer at the front door might be
at 520. It held, however, that the
District Court had not made the factual findings needed to decide
that issue. Id.,
at 521. For example, the Third Circuit
noted that the record “did not discuss the layout of the
property or the position of the officers on that prop- erty,”
and that “there [was] no indication of whether the officers
followed a path or other apparently open route that would be
suggestive of reasonableness.” Ibid.
therefore remanded the case for further proceedings.
In concluding that Officer Carroll violated
clearly established law in this case, the Third Circuit relied
exclusively on Marasco
’s statement that “entry
into the curtilage after not receiving an answer at the front door
might be reasonable.” Id.,
at 520; see 749 F. 3d,
at 199 (quoting Marasco
at 520). In the
court’s view, that statement clearly established that a
“knock and talk” must begin at the front door. But that
conclusion does not follow. Marasco
held that an
unsuccessful “knock and talk” at the front door does
not automatically allow officers to go onto other parts of the
property. It did not hold, however, that knocking on the front door
before officers go onto other parts of the
property that are open to visitors. Thus, Marasco
not answer the question whether a “knock and talk” must
begin at the front door when visitors may also go to the back door.
Indeed, the house at issue seems not to have even had a back door,
let alone one that visitors could use. 318 F. 3d, at 521.
expressly stated that
“there [was] no indication of whether the officers followed a
path or other apparently open route that would be suggestive of
That makes Marasco
wholly different from this case, where the jury necessarily decided
that Carroll “restrict[ed] [his] movements to walkways,
driveways, porches and places where visitors could be expected to
go.” Tr. 24 (Apr. 10, 2013).
To the extent that Marasco
about this case, it arguably supports Carroll’s view. In
, the Third Circuit noted that “[o]fficers are
allowed to knock on a residence’s door or otherwise approach
the residence seeking to speak to the inhabitants just as any
private citizen may.” 318 F. 3d, at 519. The court also
said that, “ ‘when the police come on to private
property . . . and restrict their movements to places
visitors could be expected to go (e.g.
, walkways, driveways,
porches), observations made from such vantage points are not
covered by the Fourth Amendment.’ ” Ibid.
(quoting 1 W. LaFave, Search and Seizure §2.3(f ) (3d ed.
1996 and Supp. 2003) (footnotes omitted)). Had Carroll read those
statements before going to the Carmans’ house, he may have
concluded—quite reasonably—that he was allowed to knock
on any door that was open to visitors.[1
The Third Circuit’s decision is even more
perplexing in comparison to the decisions of other federal and
state courts, which have rejected the rule the Third Circuit
adopted here. For example, in United States
437 F.3d 251
(CA2 2006), a police officer approached a house
that had two doors. The first was a traditional door that opened
onto a driveway; the second was a sliding glass door that opened
onto a small porch. The officer chose to knock on the latter.
, at 253–254. On appeal, the defendant argued that
the officer had unlawfully entered his property without a warrant
in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Id.,
But the Second Circuit rejected that argument. As the court
explained, the sliding glass door was “a primary entrance
visible to and used by the public.” Id.,
at 259. Thus,
“[b]ecause [the officer] approached a principal entrance to
the home using a route that other visitors could be expected to
take,” the court held that he did not violate the Fourth
The Seventh Circuit’s decision in
40 F.3d 850
(1994), vacated on other grounds, 516 U.S. 1022
(1995), provides another example. There, police officers approached
a duplex with multiple entrances. Bypassing the front door, the
officers “used a paved walkway along the side of the duplex
leading to the rear side door.” 40 F. 3d, at 862. On
appeal, the defendant argued that the officers violated his Fourth
Amendment rights when they went to the rear side door. The Seventh
Circuit rejected that argument, explaining that the rear side door
was “accessible to the general public” and “was
commonly used for entering the duplex from the nearby alley.”
In situations “where the back door of a
residence is readily accessible to the general public,” the
court held, “the Fourth Amendment is not implicated when
police officers approach that door in the reasonable belief that it
is a principal means of access to the dwelling.” Ibid.
See also, e.g., United States
, 997 F.2d
1273, 1279–1280 (CA9 1993) (“If the front and back of a
residence are read- ily accessible from a public place, like the
driveway and parking area here, the Fourth Amendment is not
implicated when officers go to the back door reasonably believing
it is used as a principal entrance to the dwelling”);
, 188 N. J. 285, 302, 907 A.2d
395, 405 (2006) (“when a law enforcement officer walks to a
front or back door for the purpose of making contact with a
resident and reasonably believes that the door is used by visitors,
he is not unconstitutionally trespassing on to the
We do not decide today whether those cases were
correctly decided or whether a police officer may conduct a
“knock and talk” at any entrance that is open to
visitors rather than only the front door. “But whether or not
the constitutional rule applied by the court below was correct, it
was not ‘beyond debate.’ ” Stanton
, 571 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (per curiam
(slip op., at 8) (quoting al-Kidd
, 563 U. S., at ___
(slip op., at 9)). The Third Circuit therefore erred when it held
that Carroll was not entitled to qualified immunity.
The petition for certiorari is granted. The
judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third
Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further
proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.