Ninth Circuit Upholds Its Previous Declaration That Cops Stealing Your Stuff Doesn't Violate The Constitution
from the and-cops-are-still-not-on-notice-they-can't-just-steal-stuff dept
Earlier this spring, the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court basically said it’s okay for cops to steal property from citizens. This isn’t because stealing is okay. It isn’t. It’s illegal. It’s that stealing someone’s possessions after they’ve been seized with a warrant doesn’t violate the Constitution.
In this case, officers, who were engaged in an illegal gambling investigation, raided a couple’s home, walking away with far more property than they officially said they did:
Following the search, the City Officers gave Appellants an inventory sheet stating that they seized approximately $50,000 from the properties. Appellants allege, however, that the officers actually seized $151,380 in cash and another $125,000 in rare coins. Appellants claim that the City Officers stole the difference between the amount listed on the inventory sheet and the amount that was actually seized from the properties.
Despite it being apparently obvious that being illegally stripped of personal possessions would interfere with a person’s direct interest in the property they no longer have, the court extended qualified immunity to the officers. It reasoned that theft, while illegal, isn’t unconstitutional, even when it’s the government stealing from citizens.
The panel determined that at the time of the incident, there was no clearly established law holding that officers violate the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendment when they steal property that is seized pursuant to a warrant.
The Ninth Circuit then withdrew this opinion, suggesting it may have had second thoughts about allowing officers to engage in theft so long as they have a warrant. It needn’t have bothered. The superseding opinion [PDF] changes nothing. It points out that only one other circuit has reached the conclusion that theft by law enforcement officers violates the Constitution, but that opinion was unpublished, which means it simply doesn’t count.
Since there’s no precedent out there in the federal court system, the Ninth isn’t going to go out of its way to create some.
We have never addressed whether the theft of property covered by the terms of a search warrant, and seized pursuant to that warrant, violates the Fourth Amendment. The only circuit that has addressed that question—the Fourth Circuit—concluded in an unpublished decision that it does. See Mom’s Inc. v. Willman, 109 F. App’x 629, 636–37 (4th Cir. 2004).
Not addressing it now means having to write ridiculous paragraphs like this in order to prevent officers from being sued for stealing stuff during searches.
We recognize that the allegation of any theft by police officers—most certainly the theft of over $225,000—is deeply disturbing. Whether that conduct violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures, however, would not “be ‘clear to a reasonable officer.’”
I’m pretty sure the officers knew it was wrong to steal. It’s a thing pretty much everyone knows. That they wouldn’t have been “on notice” that it violated the Constitution seems almost beside the point. But since the officers raised a qualified immunity defense, we’re left with this absurd outcome.
Appellants have failed to show that it was clearly established that the City Officers’ alleged conduct violated the Fourth Amendment. Accordingly, we hold that the City Officers are protected by qualified immunity against Appellants’ Fourth Amendment claim.
The court recognizes what it’s doing. But it claims to be bound by [checks notes] lack of precedent, which makes this footnote’s recognition of the obvious especially meaningless.
Importantly, we observe that the technical legal question of whether the theft of property covered by the terms of a search warrant, and seized pursuant to that warrant, violates the Fourth Amendment is a different question from whether theft is morally wrong. We recognize that theft is morally wrong, and acknowledge that virtually every human society teaches that theft generally is morally wrong. That principle does not, however, answer the legal question presented in this case.
Unfortunately, this closing statement is still true.
Not all conduct that is improper or morally wrong, however, violates the Constitution.
But when the conduct involves government employees illegally depriving people of their belongings, it would seem to violate the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The search may be protected by a valid warrant, but making off with property that isn’t targeted (or even present on the inventory sheet) sure sounds like an unreasonable seizure.