In a remarkably brief (six pages!) summary reversal that didn’t draw a lot of attention, the Supreme Court swiftly disposed of a 9th Circuit ruling in Stanton v. Sims. Apparently, it doesn’t take the Court long to come up with very cool trick for circumventing the Fourth Amendment when they set their per curiam minds to it.
The situation arose in a “neighborhood, known for ‘violence associated with the area gangs.’” as situations often do. Officer Mike Stanton got a radio run of a disturbance of a man with a bat. Upon arrival, he saw three youths, none of whom had a bat. A perfect match. Two turned and went into a building complex, while a third, Nicholas Patrick, crossed the street and “ran or walked quickly” toward a residence.
Stanton did not see Patrick with a baseball bat, but he considered Patrick’s behavior suspicious and decided to detain him in order to investigate. See Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1 (1968). Stanton exited his patrol car, called out “police,” and ordered Patrick to stop in a voice loud enough for all in the area to hear. But Patrick did not stop. Instead, he “looked directly at Stanton, ignored his lawful orders[,] and quickly went through [the] front gate” of a fence enclosing Sims’ front yard. When the gate closed behind Patrick, the fence—which was more than six feet tall and made of wood—blocked Stanton’s view of the yard.
Stanton believed that Patrick had committed a jailable misdemeanor under California Penal Code §148 by disobeying his order to stop;* Stanton also “fear[ed] for [his] safety.” He accordingly made the “split-second decision” to kick open the gate in pursuit of Patrick. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to Stanton, Sims herself was standing behind the gate when it flew open. The swinging gate struck Sims, cutting her forehead and injuring her shoulder. (Internal citations omitted and paragraph broken in two for readability.)
Dwendolyn Sims sued under §1983 for her injuries, it being her home behind the gate and the officer’s having kicked it in being without lawful authority. The trick of the decision is found in Stanton’s “belief that Patrick had committed a ‘jailable’ misdemeanor” by refusing to stop, or as the Court characterizes it, disobeying his order.
While there may be lip service concerning the right to be left alone, that apparently evaporates upon the utterance of the word “stop,” after which all bets are off for 4th Amendment protections.
The Court cast the issue as whether the officer was “plainly incompetent” by believing he was authorized to enter the fenced in yard (or curtilage, as judges like to call it) in “hot pursuit” of a dangerous potential misdemeanant. The irony, of course, is that Stanton’s “pursuit” of Patrick had nothing to do with the “man with bat” call and was predicated on nothing more than his calling out “stop” and Patrick, whom there was no probable cause for anything, electing instead to exercise his right to be left alone.
There is no suggestion in this case that Officer Stanton knowingly violated the Constitution; the question is whether, in light of precedent existing at the time, he was “plainly incompetent” in entering Sims’ yard to pursue the fleeing Patrick.
The initial clause above should be a reminder that the tendency to avoid trying to prove intent, always a troubling proposition, often comes back to bite one in the butt. It seems fairly pedestrian to contend that Stanton was well aware that he was violating the Constitution, no matter how poorly he scored on the civil service exam, from the moment he decided to hassle Patrick, for whom he had no reason to seize, to the moment he kicked in the fence gate in “hot pursuit,” a phrase that sounds far sexier than the facts suggest.
The significance of “plainly incompetent” in this opinion relates to whether Stanton is entitled to qualified immunity. It wasn’t sufficient that an officer have the reflective capacity of a small rock to be held liable for his conduct, but the new standard is “plainly incompetent,” that question swirling about the rule of United States v. Santana, that a person cannot defeat arrest by “by the expedient of escaping to private premises” applies to misdemeanors as well as felonies.
Remarkably, no Supreme was troubled in the slightest by the question of whether Stanton, who was there to check out a man with a bat, decided instead to toss a kid whose “suspicious” conduct was that he didn’t want to be hassled by Stanton for no reason. While throwing about words like misdemeanor and felony, no one questioned whether a baseless command to “stop” was sufficient to turn a kid who did nothing wrong into a criminal, and thus give rise to “hot pursuit” of this heinous “stop” ignorer.
To call Officer Mike Stanton’s conduct “plainly incompetent” would be underwhelming. His conduct is better characterized as basic, ordinary abuse of the sort which an empathetic Latina or Harvard academic should be particularly sensitive. Obviously not.
But let’s not forget one significant detail: the person harmed by Stanton’s violent act of kicking open a gate onto private property didn’t harm his fleeing “stop” ignorer, but the woman whose property it is. Was it not “plainly incompetent” that Stanton, in his zeal to protect the children, to mindlessly harmed Dwendolyn Sims?
It was not, the Supremes say, because police have to make “split second decisions” to protect us from dangerous misdemeanants whose only wrong is to exercise their right to be left alone. The only good news is that it only took the Court six pages to make this clear.