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Supreme Court cases: 1997-1998 term.

During the 1997-1998 term, the Supreme Court ruled on eight cases of particular importance to law enforcement officers and the agencies for whom they work. In these cases, the Court addressed constitutional issues and provided guidance on the interpretation of federal civil rights and employment statutes. Specifically, the Court ruled on the proper standard to apply in a police pursuit case when it is alleged that the government deprived an individual of substantive due process and whether procedural due process permits an employee to falsely deny allegations of misconduct. The Court also addressed the extent to which a prosecutor is afforded absolute immunity and whether law enforcement is held to a higher standard when making an unannounced entry to execute a warrant when, in the course of the entry, property is damaged. Finally, the Court declared in three separate opinions that same-sex harassment is actionable under Title VII and clarified what legal principles to apply in assessing employer liability in a harassment case when a supervisory employee engages in the offensive behavior.

County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 118 S. Ct. 1708 (1998)

The family of Mr. Lewis brought a civil action under 42 U.S.C. [section] 1983 against Sacramento County sheriff's deputies after Mr. Lewis was killed during a police chase. The decedent's family argued that the decedent was denied substantive due process, guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The Supreme Court held that in a high-speed police chase, a police officer does not deprive an individual of substantive due process by causing death through actions that indicate a deliberate indifference or a reckless disregard for the rights of others. Instead, the standard to be applied in assessing officer culpability is higher. Only conduct that shows an intent on the part of the officer to cause harm unrelated to the legitimate object of making the arrest will meet the test of arbitrary and shocking conduct actionable as a deprivation of substantive due process.

A high-speed chase began after a motorcycle on which the decedent was a passenger failed to obey an officer's command to stop. In violation of departmental policy, the deputies continued to pursue the motorcycle even as it exceeded 100 miles per hour in a residential neighborhood. The chase ended when the driver of the motorcycle lost control, spilling the passenger onto the pavement and in the path of the oncoming police vehicle. The passenger suffered massive head injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the appropriate standard to apply in determining whether the deputies' conduct deprived the decedent of due process was that of deliberate indifference and not the higher "shocks the conscience" standard other federal courts had applied. In order to resolve the conflict that existed among the federal courts, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court first noted that the case does not involve a question of Fourth Amendment interpretation because the conduct at issue does not meet the definition of "seizure" established in the Court's prior decisions.(1) Turning to the substantive due process question, the Court stated that the question presented is whether the deputies' actions constituted an abuse of power so clearly unjustified by legitimate law enforcement objectives that the conduct can only be properly characterized as conscience-shocking. The Court went on to hold that the standard to be applied in a substantive due process claim arising from a high-speed police pursuit is whether there was intent to harm unrelated from the legitimate object of the arrest.

The Court commented that such a high standard of culpability is warranted by not only the Constitution itself but also the very nature of the police chase. The Court reiterates that the Constitution "does not purport to supplant traditional tort law in laying down rules of conduct to regulate liability for injuries that attend living together in society."(2) Conduct on the part of the government that is intended to cause injury to others and is not justified by a legitimate government interest represents the type of conduct that the Constitution is intended to redress. To hold officers to a lesser standard in a pursuit case fails to recognize both the haste with which the decision to give chase arises and the competing concerns of the officers. A lesser standard requires that officers balance the need to stop the subject's flight and not reward attempts to flee from law enforcement against the risk high-speed pursuit poses to everyone in the path, including the subject. The Court noted that while the federal Constitution is not the appropriate remedy for police conduct that causes injury such as described in this case, remedies under state tort laws may provide an alternative basis for lawsuits against officers or their employers.(3)

Kalina v. Fletcher, 118 S. Ct. 502 (1997)

A prosecuting attorney commenced criminal proceedings against the plaintiff by filing customary in court documents, including a sworn probable cause certification that summarized the evidence. based on the attorney's representation, the court determined probable cause existed and the plaintiff was subsequently arrested and spent a night in jail. Shortly thereafter, the charges were dismissed. The plaintiff brought a civil suit under 42 U.S.C. [section] 1983 against the prosecuting attorney, claiming that factual statements in the probable cause certification were inaccurate thus violating his constitutional right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. The prosecutor requested that the suit be dismissed on the grounds that she was protected by the doctrine of absolute immunity. The lower federal courts, including the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, denied the motion for summary judgment.(4) The prosecutor subsequently petitioned the Supreme Court for review. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in order to resolve a conflict that existed in the federal circuit courts on whether a prosecutor enjoys absolute immunity for conduct in obtaining arrest warrants.

In denying the prosecutor's request, the Supreme Court revisited its earlier decisions concerning prosecutorial immunity and concluded that the act of swearing to a probable cause statement is for a witness, such as an investigating officer, and not an exercise of an advocate's professional judgment. The Court distinguished the actions of the prosecutor in this case from those of the prosecutor in Imbler v. Pachtman,(5) where the Court held that a prosecutor should enjoy absolute immunity when performing traditional advocate functions, such as deciding whom to prosecute. In contrast with the actions of the prosecutor in Imbler, the prosecutor in Kalina sought absolute protection for performing a function that commonly is performed by witnesses, the swearing to facts. The Court noted that had she sought protection for decisions made while exercising her professional judgment, such as determining whether sufficient evidence existed to establish probable cause and proceed with prosecution or selecting what facts to include in the certification before the court, the protection of absolute immunity would be appropriate. In performing a function that is normally performed by a law enforcement officer, the Court concluded that absolute immunity is not appropriate, and that in such cases, prosecutors, like law enforcement officers, should only be afforded a qualified immunity.

U.S. v. Ramirez, 118 S. Ct. 992 (1998)

This case represented the third recent opinion of the Supreme Court concerning the manner in which law enforcement officers make entry into a dwelling to execute an arrest or a search. In the first case, the Court held that the manner in which an officer makes entry into a dwelling is a factor in the reasonableness of the search.(6) In the second case, the Court addressed circumstances that would justify an unannounced entry. The Court reasoned that unannounced entries are justified if officers have reasonable suspicion that knocking and announcing would "be dangerous or futile, or...inhibit the effective investigation of the crime."(7)

In Ramirez, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the Ninth Circuit's conclusion that the Fourth Amendment imposes a higher standard on officers than reasonable suspicion when a "no-knock" entry results in damage to property. In this case, law enforcement officers received reliable information that a fugitive, who had escaped from custody by attacking a deputy sheriff, was staying at a residence occupied by Mr. Ramirez. Additionally, they had information that there were weapons and drugs stashed in the garage attached to the Ramirez residence. based on this information, including the violent criminal history of the fugitive, officers obtained a no-knock warrant to enter the residence to locate the fugitive. Early the next morning, the arrest team set up to execute the warrant. The plan was to establish a perimeter and use a loudspeaker to call out the fugitive. Just prior to the call-out and in accordance with the plan, one of the officers broke a window in the garage and pointed his weapon into the area in order to dissuade anyone from rushing into the garage to retrieve the weapons the officers had information were inside. Upon hearing the shattering glass, Mr. Ramirez seized a pistol and fired it in the direction of the garage. Ultimately, the officers were able to gain control of the situation. Mr. Ramirez was placed in custody after it was learned he was a felon and thus unlawfully had the weapon. He moved to suppress the discovery of the weapon.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the weapon was the fruit of an unlawful search by the officers and thus should be suppressed. The court stated that while a "mild exigency" sufficiently justifies an unannounced entry where no property is damaged, if the government is going to damage property during the entry, more than a mild exigency is required.(8) The Supreme Court rejected this reasoning and held that whether reasonable suspicion to make an unannounced entry exists is in no manner dependent on whether officers must damage property in order to make the entry. The Court noted that excessive or unnecessary damage to property may violate the Fourth Amendment, but whether property is damaged or not, the standard governing an unannounced entry remains the same - the existence of a reasonable suspicion to announce would be dangerous, futile, or inhibit the investigation.

Crawford-El v. Britton, 118 S. Ct. 1584 (1998)

A divided Supreme Court held that the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia exceeded its authority when it ordered the plaintiff in a 42 U.S.C. [section] 1983 action to offer clear and convincing evidence of a public official's unconstitutional motive in order to defeat the defendant's request for summary judgment. The Court concluded that neither the federal civil rights statute nor the federal rules of civil procedure support the circuit court's conclusion that a heightened pleading standard, clear and convincing evidence, is proper in a case involving an alleged unconstitutional motive.

The plaintiff in this case, serving a life sentence in a District of Columbia correctional facility, had a reputation for filing numerous lawsuits and assisting other prisoners with their suits and was described by the Supreme Court as a "litigious and outspoken prisoner."(9) Due to overcrowding in the prison, the plaintiff was transferred to several facilities throughout the country until he was placed permanently in a facility in Florida. During these transfers, three boxes of personal belongings were transferred separately, ultimately ending up back at the D.C. facility. The defendant contacted the plaintiff's brother-in-law, also an employee in the corrections office, and requested that he retrieve the boxes. The boxes were then shipped to the Florida facility and eventually returned to the plaintiff. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant deliberately misdirected the boxes in retaliation for the plaintiff's outspoken comments to a newspaper reporter on the issue of prison overcrowding. Accordingly, the plaintiff filed an action under 42 U.S.C. [section] 1983, arguing that the diversion of his property was improperly motivated by a desire to retaliate against him for exercising his First Amendment rights. The defendant denied any improper motive and moved for dismissal prior to the initiation of discovery.

The circuit court of appeals, concerned over the social costs associated with this type of litigation, imposed a heightened pleading burden on the plaintiff, requiring that the plaintiff produce "clear and convincing evidence" of the improper motive. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which held that the circuit court of appeals had no authority to impose this type of heightened standard on the plaintiff.

Like the lower court, the Supreme Court also expressed concern with the large number of civil rights actions filed by prisoners, recognizing that more attention to this issue may be appropriate. The Court stated, "Many of [the lawsuits] are plainly frivolous and some may be motivated more by a desire to obtain a 'holiday in court' than by a realistic expectation of tangible relief."(10) However, assuming there is a problem with such litigation, the Court cited Congress as the appropriate forum for undertaking reform in this area. For example, Congress demonstrated its sensitivity to this problem in 1996 with the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

The Court also pointed out that the civil rights statute currently contains provisions that courts could use to protect public officials from the burdens of defending frivolous suits. A federal court has authority to do the following:

1) consider a defendant's motion for a more definite statement of facts;

2) resolve the issue of qualified immunity;

3) narrowly tailor discovery and dictate the time, place, and manner of discovery;

4) summarily dismiss the claim; and

5) impose sanctions on a plaintiff for filing frivolous papers that lack factual support or are filed for an improper purpose, such as harassment.

LaChance v. Erickson, 118 S. Ct. 753 (1998)

As comprehensively discussed in the article "Ensuring Officer Integrity and Accountability" in the August 1998 issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin,(11) this case represented a unanimous rejection by the Supreme Court of the idea that due process includes the right to falsely deny allegations of misconduct. In this case, a U.S. Department of the Treasury supervisory police officer was investigated for his role in a series of "mad laugher" telephone calls to fellow employees. During the investigation, he was interviewed and denied any involvement in the calls. Later, when the allegations proved true, the agency discharged him for falsely denying the allegations. While he was removed for the falsification charge, he would merely have been suspended for the misconduct charge.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit agreed with the discharged employee that due process permits him to respond to the charges in a meaningful way, including the right to falsely deny allegations of misconduct. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, holding that due process does give an individual the right to notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard but not the right to falsely deny. An employee may not provide a false statement in response to a question; instead, the employee can challenge the employer's right to ask a question by, for example, refusing to answer unless compelled to do so in which case the law relating to the privilege against self-incrimination would apply.

Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 118 S. Ct. 998 (1998)

An offshore oil rig worker resigned from his job after being subjected to sexual harassment and verbal abuse by coworkers, also males. He subsequently filed a complaint in federal court alleging that he was discriminated against in his employment because of his sex in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The district court dismissed the complaint, holding that Title VII does not encompass same-sex harassment. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, relying on its earlier decision in Garcia v. Elf Atochem North America,(12) upheld the district court's dismissal. The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed, concluding that same-sex harassment is actionable under Title VII.

The conduct targeted by the prohibitions of Title VII includes discriminating against an individual in the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of the individual's sex. As the Supreme Court has stated previously, one of the conditions of employment is the right to be free from discriminatory intimidation, insult, and ridicule that is sufficiently pervasive as to alter the conditions of one's employment. The Court reasoned that individuals can be just as humiliated and abused by a person of the same sex as by a person of the opposite sex, just as they can be discriminated against by a member of their own race. The Court found "no justification in the statutory language or our precedents for a categorical rule excluding same-sex harassment claims from the coverage of Title VII."

The Court also addressed concerns expressed by some that Title VII would be transformed into a general civility code for the workplace. The Court stated that this risk is no greater for same-sex than for opposite-sex harassment cases. Title VII only reaches conduct that is so severe and pervasive as to alter the conditions of employment and create an objectively hostile atmosphere. The Court emphasized the importance of the objective element to the plaintiff's complaint, as well as consideration of the context in which the behavior occurs as a way to "ensure that courts and juries do not mistake ordinary socializing in the workplace - such as male-on-male horseplay or intersexual flirtation - for discriminatory 'conditions of employment.'"(13)

Burlington Industries v. Ellerth, 118 S. Ct. 2257 (1998)

The plaintiff quit her job after being subjected to repeated offensive remarks and gestures by her supervisor. The conduct essentially consisted of numerous offensive comments in addition to a few incidents that could be described as threats to withhold tangible benefits of employment unless she submitted to a sexual act. The threats were never carried out and it appeared as though the plaintiff suffered no tangible loss and was, in fact, promoted once. The plaintiff ultimately resigned and subsequently brought a Title VII action against her employer. The lower federal courts disagreed on whether the conduct at issue could be described as quid pro quo harassment since the conduct consisted of unfulfilled threats, and if it was not quid pro quo, whether vicarious liability is the appropriate legal standard to apply. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in order to define the appropriate legal standard to apply in assessing employer liability in a sexual harassment case.

The Court accepted the premise that the unfulfilled threats did not constitute quid pro quo harassment; however, the conduct did create a hostile work environment. The Court then noted that previously this distinction between types of harassment would dictate the legal standard that a court would apply. The Court concluded that regardless of the type of harassment, if the harasser is the victim's supervisor, the employer ought to be held vicariously liable for the improper sexual conduct of the supervisor. The Court reached this conclusion by applying common-law agency principles. The Court opined that because a supervisor is charged with maintaining a safe, productive environment and is given authority over subordinates to accomplish this task, it is logical to conclude that conduct by the supervisor that fosters a hostile environment and affects the well-being of employees is conduct that the employer should reasonably anticipate. As such, the burden and cost associated with such conduct should fall on the employer rather than the victim. The Court further commented that the nature of the supervisor-subordinate relationship warrants a conclusion that vicarious liability on the part of the employer is appropriate for the harassing conduct attributable to the supervisors selected, trained, and managed by the employer.

However, while vicarious liability is the appropriate standard, the employer may assert an affirmative defense subject to proof by a preponderance of the evidence. The affirmative defense has two elements: 1) that the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct improper conduct; and 2) that the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the preventive and corrective opportunities provided by the employer. The defense is not available if the supervisor's harassment culminates in a tangible employment action, such as discharge, demotion, or undesirable assignment.

Faragher v. Boca Raton, 118 S. Ct. 2275 (1998)

While this opinion was authored by a different Justice, it offers a discussion of the principles of sexual harassment litigation very similar to that in Burlington Industries v. Ellerth. The Supreme Court reiterated that vicarious liability is the appropriate legal theory on which to assess liability for the harassing conduct of supervisory employees. If the allegations involve the fostering of a hostile work environment as opposed to quid pro quo harassment, the employer is able to assert an affirmative defense.

After resigning her position as a lifeguard for the City of Boca Raton, Florida, plaintiff brought a civil action under Title VII, alleging that conduct directed to her by her immediate supervisors created a sexually hostile atmosphere. She alleged that she was subjected to uninvited and offensive touching and frequent lewd and offensive remarks. In addition to naming her immediate supervisors in the suit, she also sought a judgment against the city for nominal damages and other costs associated with the suit. The lower federal courts determined that the conduct of her supervisors was sufficiently severe and pervasive so as to alter the conditions of her employment. However, the court of appeals concluded that the city should not be held liable because the supervisors were not acting within the scope of their employment when engaging in the offensive conduct, thus their conduct could not be imputed to the city.

The Supreme Court reversed, applying traditional agency principles discussed in Burlington Industries, concluding that vicarious liability is appropriate. Holding the employer accountable for the conduct of its supervisors is appropriate, especially in the context of a superior-subordinate relationship where the victim/subordinate is reluctant to confront the harasser. As Justice Sourer stated in his opinion, "When a fellow employee harasses, the victim can walk away or tell the offender where to go, but it may be difficult to offer such responses to a supervisor."(4) While vicarious liability is the appropriate standard to impose for misuse of a supervisor's authority, the employer does have available an affirmative defense when the employee suffers no adverse tangible job consequence.

Applying these principles to the case at hand, the Supreme Court concluded that the degree of hostility and offensive conduct caused by the plaintiff's supervisors was sufficiently severe and pervasive as to be actionable under Title VII. Furthermore, because the district court found that the employer failed to disseminate its anti-harassment policy, to monitor the conduct of its supervisors, or indicate to employees that they could bypass their supervisor if they wished to file a grievance, the affirmative defense was not available to the city.

1998-1999 Term: Cases Granted Review

The Supreme Court carried over several cases from last term, some of which are of particular interest to law enforcement. During the next term, the Supreme Court will consider Chicago, Illinois v. Morales,(15) involving the constitutionality of a municipal ordinance authorizing police officers to order individuals they reasonably believe to be gang members to disperse when loitering together in public and making it a criminal offense to fail to comply with such orders.

The Court also will consider the constitutionality of a state statute that permits officers to search a vehicle involved in a traffic violation that would constitute grounds for an arrest(16) and whether procedural due process requires that the government provide individuals with guidance on post-deprivation remedies for return of property seized during the execution of a search warrant.(17)

The Court also will consider the extent to which a guest invited into an apartment for a few hours has standing to challenge a search by the government and whether an unenhanced observation by an officer outside an apartment window while standing in a publicly accessible area but within an area regarded as curtilage constituted a search.(18)


1 Hodari D. v. California, 499 U.S. 621 (1991); Brower v. Inyo County, California, 489 U.S. 593 (1989).

2 County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 118 S.Ct. 1708, 1718 (1998) (quoting Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 332 (1986)).

3 Lewis at 1721, n. 14, (citing Collins v. Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115, 129 (1992)) (decisions about liability standards that "involve a host of policy choices...must be made by locally elected representatives [or by courts enforcing the common law of torts], rather than by federal judges interpreting the basic charter of Government for the entire country.").

4 Fletcher v. Kalina, 93 F.3d 653 (1996); Joseph v. Patterson, 795 F.2d 549 (6th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 481 U.S. 1023 (1987).

5 424 U.S. 409 (1976).

6 Wilson v. Arkansas, 115 S. Ct. 1914 (1995).

7 Richards v. Wisconsin, 117 S. Ct. 1416, 1421 (1997).

8 91 F.3d 1297 (9th Cir. 1996).

9 Crawford-El v. Britton, 118 S. Ct. 1584, 1587 (1998).

10 Id. at 1596 (quoting Harris v. Pate, 440 F.2d 315, 320 (7th Cir. 1971)).

11 D. L. Schofield, "Ensuring Officer Integrity and Accountability," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 1998, 28-32.

12 28 F.3d 446 (5th Cir. 1994).

13 Oncale at 1003.

14 Faragher at 2290.

15 177 Ill.2d 440, 687 N.E.2d 53 (1997), cert. granted, 118 S.Ct. 1510 (1998).

16 Knowles v. Iowa, 569 (N.W.2d 601 (Iowa 1997), cert. granted, 118 S.Ct. 1298 (1998).

17 West Covina v. Perkins, 113 F.2d 1004 (9th Cir. 1997), cert. granted, 118 S.Ct. 1690 (1998).

18 Minnesota v. Carter, 569 N.W.2d 169 (Minn. 1997); State v. Johns, 569 N.W.2d 180 (1997). cert. granted, 118 S.Ct. 1183 (1998).

Special Agent Lisa A. Regini, J.D. is a legal instructor at the FBI Academy.
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Title Annotation:law enforcement-related cases
Author:Regini, Lisa A.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Oct 1, 1998
Previous Article:Third-party intermediaries and crisis negotiations.
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