By Bill V. Amato, Attorney at Law, Tempe, Arizona; and Rachel Heintz, Deputy County Attorney, Yavapai County, Arizona, Attorney’s Office
n January 23, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its headline grabbing opinion in U.S. v. Jones,1 requiring, under the Fourth Amendment, that law enforcement officers obtain search warrants to place and track electronic global positioning system (GPS) tracking devices on vehicles. That very same day, amid the debate stemming from the Jones case, the Supreme Court quietly issued its opinion in Ryburn v. Huff.2 The court’s holding seemed expected to some: Officers are protected by qualified immunity after making a warrantless entry into a home without the permission of the occupants based on concerns of imminent threat of injury.3 Notwithstanding the attention to U.S. v. Jones, Ryburn v. Huff may be the most important case out of this term of the Supreme Court for law enforcement. Ryburn strengthens the court’s reliance on the officer’s knowledge and decision making in rapidly evolving, dynamic incidents.
Ryburn v. Huff stems from an investigation into a rumor that a teenage student wrote a letter threatening to “shoot up” his high school. After meeting with school officials and the student’s classmates, two officers went to the student’s house to investigate the matter further.4 Upon arrival, the officers received no response when they knocked at the door, announced their presence, and called the home telephone.5 They then called the cellphone of the student’s mother; she answered and informed the officers that the student and she were inside the home.6 When the officer requested to speak with her at the front door, the mother hung up the phone. One or two minutes later, the mother and the student appeared and agreed to talk with the officers on the front step of the residence.
During the conversation, one officer asked whether there were any guns in the house. Without response, the mother immediately turned and ran into the house.7 Fearing for the safety of themselves and those in the house, the officers entered after the mother.8 Once in the home, the conversation continued. The officers ultimately determined that the rumor implicating the student as the author of the threatening letter was false. No search of the residence or of any individual was performed by the officers while in the house. At some point during this conversation, the student’s father came into the room and challenged the officers’ authority to be in his house; however, he did not ask them to leave. The student’s family ultimately brought a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action alleging law enforcement officers violated the family’s Fourth Amendment rights by entering their home without a warrant.9
The district court held that the “officers were entitled to qualified immunity because [the mother]’s odd behavior, combined with the information the officers gathered at the school, could have led reasonable officers to believe that there could be weapons inside the house and that family members or the officers themselves were in danger.”10 The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court but held that petitioners were not entitled to qualified immunity because the officers’ belief of serious, imminent harm was objectively unreasonable.11
The Supreme Court, reversing the Ninth Circuit and taking it to task on its flawed analysis, determined that, after considering the totality of the circumstances, it was objectionably reasonable for the officers to believe violence was imminent and they were justified in making warrantless entry into the home.12
So, why does Ryburn v. Huff have a greater impact than Jones?
Public officials are protected from liability for civil damages when “their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”13 When officers reasonably believe that their conduct complies with the law, qualified immunity will shield them from personal liability.14 This is an important concept, balancing on one hand the need to hold public officials accountable for irresponsible acts and on the other hand the allowance of public officials to perform their duties reasonably without being subjected to harassment, distraction, or liability.15
The court in Ryburn did not deviate from the traditional, qualified immunity analysis; however, it did focus on the importance of the officers’ “objectively reasonable” belief.16 In doing this, the court pointed to the failures of the Ninth Circuit’s analysis in this case. The court begins this discussion touching on the Ninth Circuit’s failure to rely on the factual determinations made by the district court, which had listened and weighed the evidence at the time of trial.17 The court then takes to task the Ninth Circuit’s analysis of “reasonableness.”
First, the U.S. Supreme Court states that there are circumstances where lawful conduct may lead to imminent violence.18 As police officers know all too well, a series of lawful actions may ultimately culminate in a violent act. Because of this stark reality, an analysis of reasonableness cannot be confined to the lawfulness or unlawfulness of an individual’s conduct; instead, all conduct, lawful or unlawful, should be considered in the court’s analysis of the officer’s reasonable belief.
The court’s second point of contention is closely related to the first. The court determined that it was inappropriate to conduct the analysis by looking at each separate event in isolation. The court drew upon common sense in stating “a combination of events each of which is mundane when viewed in isolation may paint an alarming picture”—a picture that could form the basis for a reasonable belief that injury is imminent.19 Everything that the officer sees, hears, smells, senses, and intuits is relevant and critical to the court’s analysis of the incident.
Finally, the court rejects the Ninth Circuit’s reliance on a “20/20 vision of hindsight,” preferring to rely on the “police officer’s assessment, made on the scene, of the danger presented by a particular situation.” 20 Much like the standard used in the well-known Graham analysis21 when contemplating the reasonableness of a use-of-force action, the analysis for warrantless entry into a house based on an imminent threat of injury must not second-guess officers’ “splitsecond judgments” made “in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving.” 22 The court upheld that the officer making the decision at the time of the incident is far better suited to use the information available to him or her at that time to determine the correct action.
It is critical that officers are supported in making decisions in the line of duty without fear of litigation. While the Jones case may have grabbed headlines on January 23, 2012, the language of the court in Ryburn provides confidence to law enforcement that objectively reasonable actions will not be secondguessed by judges in courtrooms far removed in time and place from reality. This pragmatic decision further strengthens the court’s reliance on and affirmation of officer decision making during the dynamic, rapidly evolving incidents that officers face during each and every shift. ■
1U.S. v. Jones, 565 U.S. ___, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012).
2Ryburn v. Huff, 565 U.S. ___, 132 S. Ct. 987 (2012). The court issued its decision in a unanimous per curiam opinion.
3Id. at 8–9.
4Id. at 1.
5Id. at 1–2.
6Id. at 2.
8Id. at 2–3.
9Id. at 3.
10Id. at 3 (internal quotations omitted).
11Id. at 4.
12Id. at 8–9.
13Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231, 129 S. Ct. 808, 815 (2009), citing Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818,102 S. Ct. 2727 (1982).
14Id. at 244, 823. The court does not deviate from the two pronged analysis of qualified immunity but specifically cites two cases, Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 126 S. Ct. 1943 (2006); and Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103, 126 S. Ct. 1515 (2006), that both discuss the reasonableness of the officer’s belief, without consideration of the individual officers’ state of mind.
15Id. at 231, 818.
16Ryburn, 565 U.S. at 5.
17Id. at 7.
18Id. at 7–8.
19Id. at 8.
21The court is no stranger to applying the objective reasonableness standard to Fourth Amendment cases. Under the well-known Graham analysis, an objective reasonableness standard is used in contemplating excessive use of force allegations under the Fourth Amendment, Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 388, 109 S. Ct. 1865, 1867-68 (1989). The court in Graham held “…that all claims that law enforcement officers have used excessive force—deadly or not—in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other ‘seizure’ of a free citizen should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its ‘reasonableness’ standard, rather than under a ‘substantive due process’ approach” (Id. at 395). As required by the Fourth Amendment, “the ‘reasonableness’ inquiry in an excessive force case is an objective one: the question is whether the officers’ actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation” (Id. at 397).
22 Ryburn, 565 U.S. at 8, quoting Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396–397 (1989).
Please cite as:
Bill V. Amato and Rachel Heintz, "Ryburn v. Huff Affirms Police Decisions in Warrantless Entries," Chief’s Counsel, The Police Chief 79 (May 2012): 12–13.