Officers were conducting a court-authorized wiretap on the telephone of a suspect. A log sheet of one of the calls intercepted during this operation appeared to contain incriminating references to marijuana use. The officer in charge of the investigation reviewed this log sheet and another from a second call monitored the same day. Based on these two calls, he prepared felony complaints, along with unsigned warrants for the arrest of various people, and supporting affidavits describing the two intercepted calls. The judge issued over 20 arrest warrants for various individuals identified through the wiretap evidence. Ultimately, charges against Briggs and others were dropped when the grand jury did not return an indictment. A lawsuit was then brought pursuant to Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that, by applying for arrest warrants, the officer had violated their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Whether immunity is proper for a law enforcement officer who causes a person to be unconstitutionally arrested by presenting a judge with a complaint and a supporting affidavit that fails to establish probable cause?
Yes. An officer who causes an unconstitutional arrest by presenting a judge with a complaint and supporting affidavit that fails to establish probable cause is entitled to “qualified” immunity, rather than “absolute” immunity.
The Court noted that, as the qualified immunity defense has evolved, it provides ample protection to all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law. Thus, a defendant will not be immune if, on an objective basis, it is obvious that no reasonably competent officer would have concluded that a warrant should issue. However, if officers of reasonable competence could disagree on this issue, immunity should be granted.
Only where the warrant application is so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence unreasonable will the shield of immunity be lost. The appropriate question to be answered is such cases is: whether a reasonably well-trained officer in the defendant’s position would have known that his affidavit failed to establish probable cause and that he should not have applied for the warrant. It is reasonable to require the officer applying for the warrant to minimize this danger by exercising reasonable professional judgment.
475 U.S. 335; 106 S. Ct. 1092 (1986)