(CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday to extend qualified immunity to Utah police officers who interpreted a man's decision to let an informant into his home as an invitation to enter and search the premises without a warrant.
The justices adopted a more flexible view of the widely criticized precedent set in Saucier v. Katz, which established a two-step procedure for determining whether a government official is entitled to qualified immunity.
"We now hold that the Saucier procedure should not be regarded as an inflexible requirement and that petitioners are entitled to qualified immunity on the ground that it was not clearly established at the time of the search that their conduct was unconstitutional," Justice Alito wrote.
The Central Utah Narcotics Task Force sent informant Brian Bartholomew into Afton Callahan's trailer to buy meth as part of an undercover sting. Officers wired Bartholomew and gave him a marked $100 bill to pay for a gram of the drug. After the deal went down, Bartholomew signaled the officers, who entered the trailer through a porch door. They then searched the premises and discovered more meth and some syringes. Callahan was charged with unlawful possession and distribution of meth.
The trial court held that the warrantless arrest and search were supported by "exigent circumstances," but the Utah Court of Appeals vacated his conviction. Callahan then sued for damages, claiming the officers had violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
The federal court in Utah granted summary judgment for the officers, citing a "consent-once-removed" doctrine that permits officers to enter a house without a warrant after consent has been granted to an undercover officer or informant.
A divided panel of the 10th Circuit ruled that the doctrine does not apply to informants. It held that "warrantless entries into a home are per se unreasonable unless they satisfy the established exceptions" of consent and exigent circumstances. But the officers did not satisfy these exceptions, the court ruled, because they knew they had no warrant, Callahan had never permitted them to enter his house, and the informant's consent to enter "could not reasonably be interpreted to extend to them."
The 10th Circuit relied on the Saucier procedure, which requires a court to decide whether a government official's actions violated a constitutional right and, if so, whether that right was "clearly established" at the time of the violation.
"The Saucier procedure has been criticized by members of this court and by lower court judges, who have been required to apply the procedure in a great variety of cases and thus have much firsthand experience bearing on its advantages and disadvantages," Justice Alito wrote.
The court ruled that, despite traditional deference to the stare decisis doctrine, revisiting precedent "is particularly appropriate where, as here, a departure would not upset expectations, the precedent consists of a judge-made rule that was recently adopted to improve the operation of the courts, and experience has pointed up the precedent's shortcomings."
The high court concluded that judges and lower courts don't have to follow the Saucier procedure in every qualified immunity case.
Justice Alito said the court now has a "considerable body of new evidence" on the consequences of "requiring adherence to this inflexible procedure."
Alito added: "This experience supports our present determination that a mandatory, two-step rule for resolving all qualified immunity claims should not be retained."