United States Issues Another 4th Amendment Opinion: Ryburn v. Huff, No. 11-208

by appealattorneylaw

Last week, I commented on United States v. Jones, No. 10-1259, a case where the Supreme Court ruled that the Government violated the 4th Amendment by installing and monitoring a GPS tracking device on Jones’ vehicle for 28 days.  In Ryburn v. Huff, No. 11-208, the Supreme Court takes on the 4th Amendment again, but this time, finds that no Fourth Amendment violation occurred.

As far as Supreme Court opinions go, this one is pretty straightforward.  The Court issued a per curiam opinion reversing a ruling issued by the Ninth Circuit in a section 1983 case.  In so doing, the Court determined that the police officers enjoyed qualified immunity, and therefore could not be sued for a violation of the Fourth Amendment, after a warrantless entry into the home of a high school student, Huff, whom they were investigating for threatening to “shoot up” the school.  Ryburn, No. 11-208, slip opinion at *1.  After dedicating the first 5 pages of the 9 page opinion to the facts of the case, the Court began its analysis by recalling its previous rulings in Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U. S. 398, 400 (2006), and Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U. S. 103, 118 (2006), for the proposition that “[a] reasonable police officer could read these decisions to mean that the Fourth Amendment permits an officer to enter a residence if the officer has a reasonable basis for concluding that there is an imminent threat of violence.”  Ryburn, No. 11-208, slip opinion at *5.  Such discussion is the most important part of the case for South Florida’s criminal defense lawyers.

However, the Supreme Court buffs out there may want to focus on the remainder of the Court’s opinion.  In pages 5 to 9 of the slip opinion, the Court devotes its analysis to criticizing the majority panel of the Ninth Circuit for substituting its own 20-20 hindsight conclusions for the detailed findings of fact entered by the District Court.  You can practically see the finger-wagging, and hear the sarcasm, in the Court’s statement: “The panel majority—far removed from the scene and with the opportunity to dissect the elements of the situation—confidently concluded that the officers really had no reason to fear for their safety or that of anyone else.”  Ryburn, No. 11-208, slip opinion at *6 (emphasis added).  The Court also took the Ninth Circuit to task for (1) purporting to accept the District Court’s findings of fact, but then changing them in several respects; (2) concluding that lawful activity cannot be a cause for concern to police officers; (3) taking an unrealistic view of the events as they unfolded at the Huff residence; and, (4) failing to “heed the District Court’s wise admonition that judges should be cautious about second-guessing a police officer’s assessment, made on the scene, of the danger presented by a particular situation.”

What I find most striking about this opinion is the fact that not a single Justice thought strongly enough about the case, one way or the other, to write separately in his or her own name, or to take ownership of the unanimous opinion.  Considering the fact that the Court has two fairly new Justices on board, and also considering the fact that the spectrum of views on the Court is so broad, I was really surprised that the Court issued only a per curiam unanimous opinion in this case.  With that in mind, I am glad to say that I’m not one of the Judges sitting on the Ninth Circuit!