WASHINGTON (CN) - A police officer who entered a deck on the side of a house during an investigation has immunity from civil rights claims, the Supreme Court found Monday.
The summary order comes in a case where the Pennsylvania State Police Department was looking for a suspect named Michael Zita.
Officers Jeremy Carroll and Brian Roberts arrived at the home of Andrew and Karen Carman based on a report that said Zita, accused of stealing a car and two loaded handguns, had fled there.
The officers said they parked their separate patrol cars in a gravel parking area on the side of the house because there were no spots out front.
As they walked to the house, they passed a shed, which they ensured was empty.
They then saw a sliding-glass door that opened onto a ground-level deck, and proceeded to knock on it.
A transcript of the officers' testimony shows that they believed the man who answered, Andrew Cameron, was "belligerent."
Since Cameron allegedly appeared to reach for his waist after refusing to answer the officers' questions, Carroll grabbed the man's arm, causing him to lose his balance and fall into the yard.
Karen then stepped outside, said Zita wasn't there and consented to a search of their property, which turned up nothing.
The Carmans, who were never charged with a crime, sued Carroll for violating their Fourth Amendment rights.
A jury ultimately ruled for Carroll, but the 3rd Circuit reversed after finding that the "knock-and-talk" exception to warrant rules "requires that police officers begin their encounter at the front door, where they have an implied invitation to go."
Finding that Carroll's actions violated clearly established law, the federal appeals court in Philadelphia also denied him qualified immunity.
The Supreme Court summarily reversed on the immunity issue Monday because it found that the precedent, stemming from an 2003 decision by the 3rd Circuit in Estate of Smith v. Marasco, "does not clearly establish that Carroll violated the Carmans' Fourth Amendment rights."
"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," the unsigned opinion states. "It did not hold, however, that knocking on the front door is required before officers go onto other parts of the property that are open to visitors. Thus, Marasco simply did 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."
The Supreme Court also emphasized the jury's finding that Carroll "restrict[ed] [his] movements to walkways, driveways, porches and places where visitors could be expected to go" - setting him apart from the 3rd Circuit's finding in Marasco.
Further compounding Carroll's immunity is that statement from Marasco would likely have led the officer to conclude "that he was allowed to knock on any door that was open to visitors."
Both the 2nd and 7th Circuits have also sided with police in cases where officers knocked on what might not be considered the traditional front door.
"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," the justices looking at Carroll's petition wrote Monday. "'But whether or not the constitutional rule applied by the court below was correct, it was not "beyond debate."' The Third Circuit therefore erred when it held that Carroll was not entitled to qualified immunity."