©2012 Jack Ryan, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)
In Ryburn v. Huff [i] the United States Supreme Court examined a lawsuit which was brought against officers of the Burbank, California Police Department. The officers were investigating a rumor concerning potential school violence. The Court outlined the facts as follows:
Darin Ryburn and Edmundo Zepeda, along with two other officers from the Burbank Police Department, responded to a call from Bellarmine-Jefferson High School in Burbank, California. When the officers arrived at the school, the principal informed them that a student, Vincent Huff, was rumored to have written a letter threatening to “shoot up” the school. The principal reported that many parents, after hearing the rumor, had decided to keep their children at home. The principal expressed concern for the safety of her students and requested that the officers investigate the threat.
In the course of conducting interviews with the principal and two of Vincent’s classmates, the officers learned that Vincent had been absent from school for two days and that he was frequently subjected to bullying. The officers additionally learned that one of Vincent’s classmates believed that Vincent was capable of carrying out the alleged threat. The officers found Vincent’s absences from school and his history of being subjected to bullying as cause for concern. The officers had received training on targeted school violence and were aware that these characteristics are common among perpetrators of school shootings.
The officers decided to continue the investigation by interviewing Vincent. When the officers arrived at Vincent’s house, Officer Zepeda knocked on the door and announced several times that the officers were with the Burbank Police Department. No one answered the door or otherwise responded to Officer Zepeda’s knocks. Sergeant Ryburn then called the home telephone. The officers could hear the phone ringing inside the house, but no one answered.
Sergeant Ryburn next tried calling the cell phone of Vincent’s mother, Mrs. Huff. When Mrs. Huff answered the phone, Sergeant Ryburn identified himself and inquired about her location. Mrs. Huff informed Sergeant Ryburn that she was inside the house. Sergeant Ryburn then inquired about Vincent’s location, and Mrs. Huff informed him that Vincent was inside with her. Sergeant Ryburn told Mrs. Huff that he and the other officers were outside and requested to speak with her, but Mrs. Huff hung up the phone.
One or two minutes later, Mrs. Huff and Vincent walked out of the house and stood on the front steps. Officer Zepeda advised Vincent that he and the other officers were there to discuss the threats. Vincent, apparently aware of the rumor that was circulating at his school, responded, “I can’t believe you’re here for that.” Sergeant Ryburn asked Mrs. Huff if they could continue the discussion inside the house, but she refused. In Sergeant Ryburn’s experience as a juvenile bureau sergeant, it was “extremely unusual” for a parent to decline an officer’s request to interview a juvenile inside. Sergeant Ryburn also found it odd that Mrs. Huff never asked the officers the reason for their visit.
After Mrs. Huff declined Sergeant Ryburn’s request to continue the discussion inside, Sergeant Ryburn asked her if there were any guns in the house. Mrs. Huff responded by “immediately turn[ing] around and r[unning] into the house.” Sergeant Ryburn, who was “scared because [he] didn’t know what was in that house” and had “seen too many officers killed,” entered the house behind her. Vincent entered the house behind Sergeant Ryburn, and Officer Zepeda entered after Vincent. Officer Zepeda was concerned about “officer safety” and did not want Sergeant Ryburn to enter the house alone. The two remaining officers, who had been standing out of earshot while Sergeant Ryburn and Officer Zepeda talked to Vincent and Mrs. Huff, entered the house last, on the assumption that Mrs. Huff had given Sergeant Ryburn and Officer Zepeda permission to enter.
Upon entering the house, the officers remained in the living room with Mrs. Huff and Vincent. Eventually, Vincent’s father entered the room and challenged the officers’ authority to be there. The officers remained inside the house for a total of 5 to 10 minutes. During that time, the officers talked to Mr. Huff and Vincent. They did not conduct any search of Mr. Huff, Mrs. Huff, or Vincent, or any of their property. The officers ultimately concluded that the rumor about Vincent was false, and they reported their conclusion to the school.
The Huffs brought a civil rights action against the officers alleging that their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure was violated by the officers’ entry into their home.
The District Court concluded that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because Mrs. Huff’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.” The District Court noted that “[w]ithin a very short period of time, the officers were confronted with facts and circumstances giving rise to grave concern about the nature of the danger they were confronting.” With respect to this kind of “rapidly evolving incident,” the District Court explained, courts should be especially reluctant “to fault the police for not obtaining a warrant.”
A panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned the district court’s granting of qualified immunity with respect to some of the officers who made entry into the house, which led to this appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
The Court reversed the 9th Circuit’s finding against the officers. The Court reasoned:
A reasonable police officer could read these decisions to mean that the Fourth Amendment permits an officer to enter a residence if the officer has a reasonable basis for concluding that there is an imminent threat of violence. In this case, the District Court concluded that petitioners had such an objectively reasonable basis for reaching such a conclusion.
The Court concluded:
In sum, reasonable police officers in petitioners’ position could have come to the conclusion that the Fourth Amendment permitted them to enter the Huff residence if there was an objectively reasonable basis for fearing that violence was imminent. And a reasonable officer could have come to such a conclusion based on the facts as found by the District Court. The petition for certiorari is granted, the judgment of the Ninth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for the entry of judgment in favor of petitioners.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] Ryburn v. Huff, ___U.S.___; 132 S.Ct. 987 (2012).