(CN) - Police were justified in their warrantless entry of a private home to investigate whether a bullied teenager was planning to "shoot up" his high school, the Supreme Court ruled Monday, saying that the 9th Circuit's "contrary conclusion was flawed for numerous reasons."
The Pasadena-based federal appeals panel had tossed immunity to two Burbank, Calif., officers who entered the home of George and Maria Huff while responding to a rumor that the Huffs' son was planning to shoot students at Bellarmine-Jefferson High School.
But a dissent from one member of the panel, Judge Johnnie Rawlinson, faulted the majority for "recit[ing] a sanitized account of this event" that differed markedly from the trial court's findings of fact.
Four officers showed up at the Huff home in June 2007 to investigate the rumors about a threatening letter that had supposedly been written by Vincent Huff. The officers believed that Vincent fit the profile for a school-shooting perpetrator because his classmates had told them that Vincent was absent from school for the last two days, frequently subjected to bullying and supposedly capable of carrying out the threat.
When they knocked on the Huffs' door and identified themselves as law enforcement, no one answered. No one answered the home phone either, but Vincent's mother, Maria, answered her cellphone when Sergeant Darin Ryburn called it. She said she was in the house with Vincent and hung up the phone.
Maria and Vincent stepped outside a few minutes later, and Maria refused to continue the questioning in the house. Maria and the officers gave different testimony about what happened next, but the Supreme Court said that the trial court's findings, which adopted the police officers' account, deserve deference.
The officers said Maria turned and ran into the house when they asked if there were any weapons inside.
Sergeant Ryburn testified that he was "scared because [he] didn't know what was in that house" and had "seen too many officers killed." He entered the house behind Maria, with Vincent and Officer Edmundo Zepeda following behind. Zepeda said he was concerned about "officer safety" and did not want Ryburn to enter the house alone.
The two remaining officers, who had been standing out of earshot, entered the house last, on the assumption that their colleagues had permission to enter.
Once inside the house, the officers determined that the rumors were untrue. They never conducted a formal search of the Huffs or their property.
The Huffs sued the officers and the city of Burbank for violating their Fourth Amendment rights. The District Court held that the officers were immune because there were "exigent circumstances," including "officer safety concerns" that permitted the officers to enter the home.
But the 9th Circuit majority rejected that conclusion last year, saying that Maria Huff had "merely asserted her right to end her conversation with the officers and returned to her home."
They granted immunity only to the two officers who merely followed the others inside. "A reasonable officer confronted with this situation may have been frustrated by having a parent refuse them entry, but would not have mistaken such a refusal or reluctance to answer questions as exigent circumstances," Judge Algenon Marbley wrote for the majority.
The Supreme Court threw out this finding, saying that "it should go without saying ... that there are many circumstances in which lawful conduct may portend imminent violence."
"No decision of this court has found a Fourth Amendment violation on facts even roughly comparable to those present in this case," the unsigned opinion states.
"Confronted with the facts found by the District Court, reasonable officers in the position of petitioners could have come to the conclusion that there was an imminent threat to their safety and to the safety of others," the justices added. "The Ninth Circuit's contrary conclusion was flawed for numerous reasons."
Among those reasons, the high court noted that the 9th Circuit employed an "entirely unrealistic" analysis of the event. "The majority looked at each separate event in isolation and concluded that each, in itself, did not give cause for concern," the justices wrote. "But it is a matter of common sense that a combination of events each of which is mundane when viewed in isolation may paint an alarming picture."
Judges moreover "should be cautious about second-guessing a police officer's assessment, made on the scene, of the danger presented by a particular situation."
"With the benefit of hindsight and calm deliberation, the panel majority concluded that it was unreasonable for petitioners to fear that violence was imminent," the nine-page decision states. "But we have instructed that reasonableness 'must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.'"
"Judged from the proper perspective of a reasonable officer forced to make a split-second decision in response to a rapidly unfolding chain of events that culminated with Mrs. Huff turning and running into the house after refusing to answer a question about guns, petitioners' belief that entry was necessary to avoid injury to themselves or others was imminently reasonable," the justices concluded.
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