I’ve had several people ask me about an update on the Sizemore case, which was a search and seizure case out of Fayette County, West Virginia, involving a multi-jurisdictional drug task force who were found by a federal judge to have included false allegations in a search warrant application. The federal criminal charges were dropped after the evidence seized during the search was suppressed from evidence. Then the case was brought to me for a civil lawsuit. We filed in in September of 2019. We recently settled the case.
This was the case where the Charleston Gazette newspaper thought it was shocking that we filed a lawsuit over an illegal search where, despite the illegal warrant, drugs actually were found in my client’s house. I believe the headline was, “Officers found his $25k of heroin. He walked free, and now he’s suing police.”
In my December 2019 update, in response to the police officers’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit, I reiterated that equal justice under the law should mean that even people found with drugs should be entitled to the equal application of law and posted our response brief, as well as their motion.
In my January 2020 update, I posted a copy of the federal court’s memorandum opinion and order denying the motion to dismiss, and denying the application of qualified immunity, ordering that the case proceed. You’ve been hearing a lot about qualified immunity lately. The order in this case denied qualified immunity to the officers:
As previously explained, Defendant Morris violated Plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment protections. Thus, the next question is whether the violated right was clearly established at the time of the events in question. “[I]t has long been established that when law enforcement acts in reckless disregard of the truth and makes a false statement or material omission that is necessary to a finding of probable cause, the resulting seizure will be determined to be unreasonable.” Gilliam v. Sealey, 932 F.3d 216, 241 (4th Cir. 2019); see Franks, 438 U.S. at 157.
As the Fourth Circuit has explained, “a reasonable officer cannot believe a warrant is supported by probable cause if the magistrate is misled by statements that the officer knows or should know are false.” Miller, 475 F.3d at 632 (quoting Smith v. Reddy, 101 F.3d 351, 355 (4th Cir.1996)).
Qualified immunity is actually pretty rare in excessive force lawsuits – at least where the plaintiff’s attorney knows what he or she is doing. Ideally, there is a dispute of facts, which requires a trial. But in search in seizure cases, it’s usually less of a factual dispute, and more of a legal dispute. The gist of qualified immunity is that courts give some leeway to police officers, who can’t be expected to automatically know each and every new case that comes out. Some courts expand it, unfortunately, but many don’t.
Here, the court equally applied the Fourth Amendment and justice was served. A police officer should not be allowed to lie in order to obtain a search warrant, even where they believe that the ends justifies the means. Here’s the full order, which was quoted above: