The Fourth Amendment is based upon the standard of “objective reasonableness.” This means that the subjective, or in other words, personal intent of an officer is irrelevant in determining whether a Fourth Amendment violation occurred. On July 2, 2014, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Scherr v. City of Chicago, et al. [i], which serves as an excellent review of the aforementioned principal.
In Scherr, the plaintiff, Jennifer Scherr’s, seven year old daughter was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor that led to seizures. Jennifer’s father-in-law was an officer for the Chicago Police Department. Jennifer learned that marijuana oil might help with the seizures, so Jennifer decided to grow her own marijuana to extract the oil. Her father-in-law advised her of the legal risks but provided her with special light bulbs to help grow the marijuana and occasionally checked the crop, which was grown in Jennifer’s home.
In July of 2012, Jennifer’s daughter (the defendant’s granddaughter) died. Jennifer kept the daughters body in her home for several days after the death so the family could grieve over the body. This was over the objection of the father-in-law and other family members. There was also a heated dispute between Jennifer and the father-in-law over religious symbols placed at the funeral home and the disposition of the daughter’s ashes after she was cremated.
Four days after the funeral, the father-in-law, in conjunction with another police officer from the narcotics unit, completed a search warrant affidavit for Jennifer’s home regarding the marijuana plants. The sole basis for probable cause for the warrant was that the father-in-law said he personally observed 50 marijuana plants in the basement of Jennifer’s home. The search warrant affidavit made no mention of his relationship to Jennifer or any dispute between the two. This occurred prior to the medical exception to the marijuana possession law in Illinois.
A Cook County judge approved the warrant and later that day, 12-15 DEA agents raided Jennifer’s home and searched it for the marijuana. None was found, as Jennifer destroyed the plants after her daughter’s death.
Jennifer then filed suit against her father-in-law, the narcotics officer and the City of Chicago alleging they violated her Fourth Amendment rights by providing false information and failing to train the officers regarding this behavior.
The officers and city filed a motion for summary judgment and the district court granted the motion and dismissed the case. Jennifer appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Seventh Circuit noted that the law in this case is on the side of the officers. The court stated:
The law is settled, however, that a police officer’s motive in applying for a warrant does not invalidate the warrant. Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 404-05 (2006); Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 813 (1996); United States v. Taylor, 471 F.3d 832, 840 (7th Cir. 2006); United States v. Romo-Corrales, 592 F.3d 915, 919 (8th Cir. 2010). [ii] [emphasis added]
The court noted that, there was no allegation that the father-in-law and the narcotics officers knew that the drugs were no longer in Jennifer’s residence. If this were the case, then Jennifer would certainly have a case that her rights were violated under Fourth Amendment based on Franks v. Delaware. [iii] Since there was no allegation that the father-in-law lied in the affidavit, the allegation focused on his “misleadingly incomplete” affidavit in that it did not disclose his relationship with Jennifer, his involvement, or any information as to his dispute with Jennifer. To this the court stated:
But candor in the affidavit would not have undermined the existence of probable cause. [The father-in-law] had, so far as appears, seen marijuana plants in Jennifer’s basement just a few days earlier. Her possession of them had been criminal even if she’d been planning to get rid of the plants and just hadn’t gotten around to doing so yet (though in fact she had). What was wrong with the affidavit was the motivation—[the father-in-law’s] spite, his desire to see his daughter-in-law arrested just four days after the death of her child (his grandchild) and maybe even prosecuted (though that would be an unlikely sequel to the search even if the plants had still been in her basement)—though if she were prosecuted he might be as well, as her accomplice in the growing of the marijuana. [iv]
The court then provided advice to the State of Illinois. Specifically, they stated:
All this said, the State of Illinois might be wise to require slightly more information in affidavits in support of warrant applications—information about the existence of a family or business relationship between the affiant (usually either a police officer, as in this case, or a prosecutor) and the person who is to be arrested or whose residence is to be searched. Such information would identify a conflict of interest that might make it prudent to reject the application. Such an inquiry would have been prudent here, as the likely upshot would have been no raid on Jennifer’s home—and the time of the DEA agents would have been saved, the grieving mother spared further emotional distress, and this suit not brought. [v]
Lastly, the court provided advice regarding two additional claims that a plaintiff such as Jennifer may have pursued. The first was called a “’class of one’ denial of equal protection.” This claim is possible when there is evidence “that the defendant deliberately sought to deprive the plaintiff of the equal protection of the laws for reasons of a personal nature unrelated to the duties of the defendant’s position.” [vi] In order for this claim to prevail, however, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had:
no rational reason or motive being imaginable for the injurious action taken by the defendant against the plaintiff, the action would be inexplicable unless animus had motivated it” (emphasis added),…quoting Board of Trustees v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 367 (2001) [vii]
In Jennifer’s case, this claim would not prevail because the father-in-law did have some rational basis for his action in obtaining the search warrant particularly that, his observations provided probable cause to believe a crime occurred and evidence was located in the place to be searched.
The second method, the court stated, was a very plausible claim in Jennifer’s situation. The court stated:
A more promising road on which the plaintiff took not even the first step would have been to sue [the father-in-law] (and perhaps [the narcotics officer] as well) in an Illinois state court under Illinois state law for intentional infliction of emotional distress, Public Finance Corp. v. Davis, 360 N.E.2d 765, 767 (Ill. 1976), or alternatively to join such a claim with her federal claim in her federal suit, thus invoking the district court’s supplemental state-law jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1367. There is little doubt (always assuming the truth of the allegations in the complaint) that [the father-in-law] intended to inflict severe emotional distress on his daughter-in-law and succeeded in doing so. Public Finance Corp. v. Davis, supra, and Doe v. Calumet City, 641 N.E.2d 498, 506-09 (Ill. 1994), both suits similar to the present one, suggest that Jennifer could have prevailed in such a suit against him. This case thus illustrates a tendency for some victims of police abuse to bring hopeless federal suits even when they have plausible state law remedies. [viii]
Thus, while the court found that the officer’s conduct was “misleading”, this did not rise to a Fourth Amendment violation because, when viewed objectively, probable cause did exist to believe evidence of a state law violation was in Jennifer’s home. Since the court found the officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment, the claim against the City of Chicago must also fail. It is important to note that the court did point out another avenue that may establish liability in this case. As such, officers should be aware of ethical considerations and disclose all relevant facts in warrant affidavits.
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] No. 13-1992 (7th Cir. Decided July 2, 2014)
[ii] Id. at 7
[iii] 438 U.S. 154 (1978)
[iv] Scherr at 7
[v] Id. at 8
[vi] Id. at 9
[viii] Id. at 9-10