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Section 1983 Claims for Warrantless Entry of the Home Under the Fourth Amendment

As most know, the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures at the hands of government officials. When an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights are violated, they are able to bring a claim against government officials for monetary damages. We often handle cases where governmental officials armed with a warrant, and in the absence of an emergency situation, enter the completely wrong home, resulting in a warrantless search. 

The threshold question then, of course, becomes whether a mistaken, warrantless search of one’s home (without an exigency) violates the Fourth Amendment.

When Does a Warrantless Entry Violate the Fourth Amendment? 

The language of the Fourth Amendment provides as follows:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Courts routinely state that the Fourth Amendment, at its very core, stands for the right of a man to retreat into his or her own and there be free from unreasonable government intrusion.” Silverman v. United States, 365 U.S. 505, 511 (1961). The Fourth Amendment is also understood to draw “a firm line at the entrance of the house [and] [a]bsent exigent circumstances, that threshold may not be crossed without a warrant.” Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1980). Such warrantless intrusions of the home are said to be presumptively unconstitutional and violative one’s constitutional rights. 

The Supreme Court, however, appeared to deviate from that general presumption in Maryland v. Garrison, 480 U.S. 79 (1987). In Garrison, officers obtained and executed a warrant that authorized the search of the entire third floor of an apartment building, thinking that the targeted individual’s apartment occupied the entire floor. Unbeknownst to the officers, the third floor actually contained two apartments. 

 When officers arrived, they entered the apartment occupied by another individual, Harold Garrison. Id. at 80. Before realizing they were in the wrong apartment, officers discovered drugs which served as the basis for his conviction for violating Maryland’s Controlled Substances Act. Garrison filed a motion to suppress the contraband found, arguing that the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights because the police did not have a warrant to enter his home. 

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States were the Court ruled that the search did not violate Garrison’s Fourth Amendment rights, because the search was “understandable and reasonable [based on] [t]he objective facts available to the officers at the time.” Id. at 88. The finding of reasonableness, however, turned on the officers’ investigation before procuring and executing the warrant, which included “an exterior examination of the three-story building […], and an inquiry of the utility company.” Id. at 81. 

In short, Garrison stands for the premise that officials do not violate the Fourth Amendment when they enter the incorrect address, even without a warrant, so long as their conduct is reasonable and is “consistent with a reasonable effort to ascertain and identify the place intended to be searched.” Id. at 88. 

Practical Impact

Garrison essentially gives latitude to officials for reasonable mistakes. When bringing a Section 1983 claim for an erroneous, warrantless entry into one’s home, litigants cannot rely only on the guidance of Payton v. New York (and many other cases). Instead, attorneys must be able to show that the officers’ mistake was unreasonable and that they failed to undertake a reasonable effort to ascertain and identify the place to be searched. Of course, such an inquiry will rely heavily on the facts of each specific case. 

Disclaimer: This article is for informational and educational purposes only, does not constitute legal advice and does not establish any kind of attorney-client relationship.

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