Law School Case Brief
Groh v. Ramirez - 540 U.S. 551, 124 S. Ct. 1284 (2004)
Because the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion stands at the very core of the Fourth Amendment, judicial precedent firmly establishes the basic principle of Fourth Amendment law that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable. Thus, absent exigent circumstances, a warrantless entry to search for weapons or contraband is unconstitutional even when a felony has been committed and there is probable cause to believe that incriminating evidence will be found within. The agent led a team of federal and local law enforcement officers in a search of the house, but found no illegal weapons or explosives.
A United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent prepared and signed an application for a warrant to search a family's Montana house. The application, which stated that the search was for specified weapons, explosives, and records, was supported by the agent's detailed affidavit setting forth his basis for believing that such items were in the house. The agent presented these documents, along with a warrant form completed by the agent, to a Federal Magistrate Judge, who then signed the warrant form. The warrant, rather than identifying any of the items that the agent intended to seize, (1) in the portion calling for a description of the "person or property," described only the house; and (2) did not incorporate by reference the itemized list in the application; but (3) recited that the Magistrate was satisfied that the affidavit established probable cause to believe that contraband was concealed in the house, and sufficient grounds existed for issuance of the warrant. The family, against whom no charges were filed, sued the agent and the other officers raising claims that included violation of the Federal Constitution's Fourth Amendment.
(a) Did the search warrant violate the Fourth Amendment? (b) Was the federal agent entitled to qualified immunity, given that a magistrate, relying on an affidavit that particularly described the items in question, found probable cause to conduct the search?
(a) No (b) No
(a) The warrant was plainly invalid as it provided no description of the type of evidence sought. The fact that the application adequately described the things to be seized did not save the warrant from its facial invalidity because the warrant did not incorporate other documents by reference and neither the affidavit nor the application accompanied the warrant. The magistrate's authorization of the search did not render it constitutional because the warrant's obvious deficiency required the court to consider the search warrantless and presumptively unreasonable.; (b) The federal agent was not entitled to qualified immunity because no reasonable officer could have believed that a warrant that plainly did not comply with the Fourth Amendment's particularity requirements was valid nor been unaware of the basic rule that, absent consent or exigency, a warrantless search was presumptively unconstitutional.
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