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The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments, and protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law. Whether an official protected by qualified immunity may be held personally liable for an allegedly unlawful official action generally turns on the objective legal reasonableness of the action, assessed in light of the legal rules that were clearly established at the time it was taken.
Jerry Ray Bowen had shot his ex-girlfriend with a pistol-gripped sawed-off shotgun when the latter tried to leave. The ex-girlfriend later met with the police officer to discuss the incident, describing the attack in detail, mentioning that Bowen had previously assaulted her, that he had ties to the Mona Park Crips gang, and that he might be staying at the home of his former foster mother, Augusta Millender. The police officer conducted a detailed investigation, and subsequently, drafted an application for a warrant authorizing a search of the Millenders' home for all firearms and ammunition, as well as evidence indicating gang membership. Before submitting the application to a magistrate for approval, the police officer had it reviewed by his supervisor, as well as a police lieutenant and a deputy district attorney. The police officer then submitted the application to a magistrate, who issued the warrant. The ensuing search uncovered only Millender's shotgun, a California Social Services letter addressed to Bowen, and a box of .45-caliber ammunition. The Millenders filed an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the officers, alleging that the latter had subjected them to an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The District Court granted summary judgment to the Millenders, concluding that the firearm and gang material aspects of the search warrant were overbroad and that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity from damages. The Ninth Circuit, sitting en banc, affirmed the denial of qualified immunity. The court held that the warrant's authorization was unconstitutionally overbroad because the affidavits and warrant failed to establish probable cause that the broad categories of firearms, firearm-related material, and gang-related material were contraband or evidence of a crime, and that a reasonable officer would have been aware of the warrant's deficiency. The officers sought review. Certiorari was granted.
Were the officers entitled to qualified immunity?
The Supreme Court determined that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. Even if the warrant were invalid, it was not so obviously lacking in probable cause that the officers could be considered "plainly incompetent" for concluding otherwise, because, inter alia, a reasonable officer could conclude that there would be additional illegal guns among others that the suspect owned given his possession of one illegal gun, his gang membership, his willingness to use the gun to kill someone, and his concern about the police. Moreover, it would not have been unreasonable for an officer to believe that evidence regarding his gang affiliation would prove helpful in prosecuting him, and the officers sought and obtained approval of the warrant application from a superior and a deputy district attorney before submitting it to the magistrate. Accordingly, the Court reversed the appellate court's judgment denying the officers qualified immunity.