Police Can Use Illegally Seized Evidence to Defend § 1983 Claims

By lfsuser on August 12, 2016

On June 27, 2016, the Ninth Circuit upheld summary judgment in favor of police officers in an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Lingo v. City of Salem, 2014 WL 1347468. In reaching its decision, the Ninth Circuit held that the exclusionary rule does not apply in § 1983 cases.

Salem Police Officer Elmore and Salem Police Corporal Carney attempted to contact Lia Marie Lingo following complaints from her neighbors. When he approached her home, Officer Elmore noticed the rear outside light was on and walked through the home’s carport and knocked on the rear door located within, thereby entering the home’s curtilage. Ms. Lingo came to the door and spoke with Officer Elmore. During the conversation, Officer Elmore noticed an odor of marijuana coming from the house, the presence of minors, and the fact that Ms. Lingo did not have medical marijuana privileges. Ms. Lingo was placed under arrest for endangering the welfare of a minor.

Following her arrest, a search warrant was obtained based on Officer Elmore’s description of the marijuana odor. Upon execution of the warrant, drugs and drug paraphernalia were found in Ms. Lingo’s home. At her criminal trial, Ms. Lingo argued that Officers Elmore and Carney violated the Fourth Amendment by entering the carport and approaching the home’s back door and any evidence collected thereafter was fruit of an unlawful search. The criminal court agreed, the evidence was suppressed, and the criminal charges were later dropped.

Ms. Lingo and her children filed suit against the City of Salem, Officer Elmore and Corporal Carney alleging various claims, including a Fourth Amendment unlawful arrest. Plaintiffs sought compensatory and punitive damages. The defendants moved for summary judgment. The district court agreed that the officers violated the Fourth Amendment by entering the home’s curtilage but concluded that the evidence did not taint the ultimate arrest of Ms. Lingo and that, based on the smell of marijuana, there was enough probable cause to arrest. The district court concluded that the exclusionary rule did not apply to § 1983 cases and granted summary judgment.

On appeal to the Ninth Circuit, Ms. Lingo challenged the presence of probable cause for her arrest on two grounds: (1) the officers could not establish probable cause through evidence gathered due to the illegal entry to the carport; and (2) the undisputed facts did not support a find of probable cause.

The Ninth Circuit found that the public policy behind the exclusionary rule in criminal cases – deterrence of unlawful conduct and protection constitutional rights – was not present in the § 1983 setting. The need for deterrence is minimal in civil cases. Whereas criminal cases involve constitutional rights of the accused, § 1983 cases are monetary cases and do not threaten an individual’s liberty interests. In Lingo, the challenged evidence was introduced for the officers’ defense (i.e. to establish probable cause for the arrest). The Ninth Circuit held that extending the exclusionary rule to civil cases would create a windfall for plaintiffs and an extreme cost to law enforcement.

The Ninth Circuit also held that the exclusionary rule did not dictate that an officer must ignore facts that would create probable cause simply because those facts were procured through an unlawful search. It upheld that officers could rely on illegally obtained evidence to provide that arrest warrants were supported by probable cause and that plaintiffs cannot be compensated for injuries related to the discovery of incriminating evidence and resulting criminal prosecution.

This decision provides significant support for defendants in § 1983 litigation by expanding the available evidence officer may rely on to establish probable cause and defend themselves in Fourth Amendment cases. It also aligns the Ninth Circuit with other circuits that have permitted the use of illegally seized evidence to defend these claims. With Lingo, the likelihood of a quick resolution to a § 1983 claim has dramatically increased, now that all evidence available to officers at the time of the arrest may be introduced.

This communication may be considered advertising in some jurisdictions. It is intended to provide general information about legal developments and is not legal advice. If you have questions about the contents of this alert, please contact Christina Forst at (415) 697-2000 or cforst@aghwlaw.com.