On June 20, 2019, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Lane v. Nading et al.[i], in which the court examined whether a parole officer was entitled to qualified immunity from suit when he entered Lane’s motel room, without a warrant and without knocking and announcing, and arrested Lane. The relevant facts of Lane, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
Lane was on parole in Arkansas in January 2015. As part of his conditions of release from the Arkansas Department of Corrections, Lane consented to warrantless searches and seizures of his “person, place of residence, and motor vehicles.” Lane v. State, 513 S.W.3d 230, 233 (Ark. 2017). Lane appeared for his initial parole intake with Nading but subsequently failed to report, a violation of his release conditions.
That same month, Lane committed another violation of his release conditions: He began staying at a hotel in Fort Smith. The hotel was not his primary residence, and he did not receive prior authorization from Nading before staying there. Nading learned that Lane was staying at the hotel and went with Boyd to find Lane.
The officers enlisted a hotel worker to open Lane’s door for them. Without knocking and announcing their presence, they entered the room. Inside, they found Lane asleep with a female companion. They also found drugs and a handgun. The officers arrested Lane, who signed an affidavit declaring that the drugs were his.
Lane was convicted in state court of multiple drug charges and simultaneous possession of a firearm. He received a sentence of 70 years’ imprisonment.[ii]
Lane appealed his conviction to the Arkansas Supreme Court which affirmed his conviction; however, the court did hold that Nading violated Lane’s Fourth Amendment rights by not “knocking and announcing” prior to entering Lane’s motel room. Lane subsequently filed suit in federal district court and alleged that Officer’s Nading and Boyd violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment by failing to knock and announce prior to entering his motel room to search it. The district court held the officers violated the Fourth Amendment and denied the officers’ qualified immunity. The officers appealed the denial of qualified immunity to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The issue before the court was whether Nading and Boyd were entitled to qualified immunity. The court first examined the legal principles regarding qualified immunity and stated
The “officers are entitled to qualified immunity under § 1983 unless (1) they violated a federal statutory or constitutional right, and (2) the unlawfulness of their conduct was ‘clearly established at the time.'” District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S. Ct. 577, 589 (2018) (citation omitted). To be “clearly established,” the law must be “sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would understand what he is doing is unlawful.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Clearly established law is “dictated by controlling authority or a robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority.” Id. at 589-90 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “[P]recedent must be clear enough that every reasonable official would interpret it to establish the particular rule the plaintiff seeks to apply.” Id. at 590. “It is not enough that the rule is suggested by then-existent precedent.” Id. The “clearly established” standard, therefore, requires that a particular rule’s contours be well defined at a “high ‘degree of specificity.'” Id. (citation omitted). Courts should not “define clearly established law at a high level of generality” but should “identify a case where an officer acting under similar circumstances . . . was held to have violated the Fourth Amendment.” Id. (citation omitted). The case need not be “directly on point,” but should place the lawfulness of the officer’s conduct “beyond debate.” Id. (citation omitted).
The court then examined whether the law was “clearly established” such that another reasonable officer would have known it was “beyond debate” that it was unlawful to enter a parolee’s motel room or residence without first knocking and announcing.
Lane argued that the law was clearly established at the time the officers entered his motel room based upon a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals case, two district court cases, and one intermediate appellate decision from California.[iii] Lane contended that this amounted to a “robust consensus of persuasive authority” such that the law should be considered “clearly established.” The Eighth Circuit addressed Lane’s argument and stated
[W]e do not consider a consensus based on the decision of a single circuit and a handful of lower courts to be “robust.” Wesby, 138 S. Ct. at 589; see Jacobson v. McCormick, 763 F.3d 914, 918 (8th Cir. 2014) (concluding that “two decisions from other circuits did not place [an] issue beyond debate” in the absence of controlling authority).[iv]
The Eighth Circuit also noted that, in Samson v. California,[v] the Supreme Court called into question the extent to which parolee’s enjoy Fourth Amendment protection compared to non-parolee’s. In discussing Samson, the Eight Circuit stated
In its 2006 Samson v. California decision, the Court held that “the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit a police officer from conducting a suspicion less search of a parolee.” 547 U.S. 843, 857 (2006). The Court explained that “parole is an established variation on imprisonment of convicted criminals,” id. at 850 (citation omitted), so parolees “have severely diminished expectations of privacy,” id. at 852.[vi]
The court explained that Lane was clearly told that he was subject to suspicion less searches. Further, the court also explained that the state has a “substantial” and “overwhelming” interest in supervising parolees because they have a high likelihood to commit crimes. The court stated
The State also has “interests in reducing recidivism and thereby promoting reintegration and positive citizenship among” parolees that “warrant privacy intrusions that would not otherwise be tolerated under the Fourth Amendment.[vii]
Lastly, the court acknowledged that Samson did not speak to the issue of “knock and announce.” However, considering the clearly reduced rights under the Fourth Amendment enjoyed by parolees and considered the fact that Samson was decided after the Seventh Circuit decided Green (one of the cases relied upon by Lane in his case), the court held that
[I]t would not have been clear to every reasonable officer in the defendant officers’ positions that failing to knock and announce his presence before entering and searching Lane’s hotel room violated the Fourth Amendment. Cf. Wesby, 138 S. Ct. at 589… Because the law was not clear, the officers are entitled to qualified immunity.
Therefore, the Eighth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of qualified immunity for Nading and Boyd.
[i] No. 18-2194, 18-2429 (8th Cir. Decided June 20, 2019)
[ii] Id. at 2
[iii] Id. at 5 (See Green v. Butler, 420 F.3d at 699 (holding that “there is no blanket exception to the [knock-and-announce] requirement for parolees absent exigency or futility” and as such an officer is not excused from the requirement when entering a parolee’s home); Portnoy v. City of Davis, 663 F. Supp. 2d 949, 957 (E.D. Cal. 2009) (relying on Green for the proposition that “[a] parole or probation search does not permit an exception to the knock and announce requirement unless there are exigent circumstances or futility”); United States v. Musa, 288 F. Supp. 2d 1205, 1208 (D. Kan. 2003) (rejecting an argument that the knock-and-announce rule did not apply to parolees because the government had not cited, nor had the district court found, “cases that extend a probationer’s diminished expectation of privacy to elimination of the knock and announce requirement”), rev’d on other grounds, 401 F.3d 1208 (10th Cir. 2005); People v. Montenegro, 219 Cal. Rptr. 331, 334 (Cal. Ct. App. 1985) (holding that officers must comply with state statutory knock-and-announce requirements when searching a parolee’s dwelling).
[iv] Id. (emphasis added)
[v] 547 U.S. 843 (2006)
[vi] Id. at 6 (emphasis added)
[vii] Id. at 6-7 (emphasis added)