(CN) – A Colorado sheriff is potentially liable for claims that police illegally searched a farm and seized evidence of a large marijuana-growing operation, the 10th Circuit ruled, because the overly broad warrant allowed officers to seize “all other evidence of criminal activity.”
Steven Goering, sheriff of Kit Carson County, ordered his deputy to get a warrant to search Thomas Cassady’s farm after hearing reports that Cassady was growing marijuana and had assaulted someone.
It was Deputy Sheriff Willis Boden’s first time obtaining a drug-related search warrant, and he admitted to not knowing what he was doing.
But another officer helped him get the warrant, and police began searching the farm. They found several marijuana plants on the property, but they apparently trashed the farm during the search. The district court explained: “When Cassady returned home, the farm was a mess. His house had been ransacked, there was trash and his personal property on the floor, newly hatched chicks had been killed by being removed from their incubators, and most of the poultry was missing.”
The jury found Goering and his team primarily responsible for the property damage.
A judge in a related criminal proceeding found the search illegal and ordered the evidence suppressed.
In the civil case that followed, the district court granted Goering qualified immunity with respect to Cassady’s arrest, but not for the search warrant. The court found the warrant overbroad and the search illegal.
Cassady won the first trial, but was given a new trial due to the prejudicially low damages award. Before the retrial, Goering again moved for qualified immunity over the illegal warrant claim, and the district court again denied his request.
The Denver-based federal appeals court affirmed, finding the warrant overbroad in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Judge Seymour said the warrant was “ungrammatical and difficult to read,” and didn’t “confine the scope of the search to any particular crime.”
“The officers only had probable cause to search for evidence related to marijuana cultivation, yet the warrant authorized the seizure of all possible evidence of any crime in any jurisdiction,” Seymour wrote (emphasis in original).
In a lengthy dissent, Judge McConnell argued that it was overkill to throw out the valid portions of the warrant based on the sweeping portions. The invalid portions should be severed from the warrant, McConnell said.