Pearson v. Callahan 07-751 (10th Cir.)
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear the case of Afton Callahan, a Utah man who claimed that in March 2002, drug agents from the Central Utah Narcotics Task Force had sent a confidential informant into his home for a drug buy, and then entered his home to search it without a warrant and arrested him. During his trial, Callahan moved to have the evidence suppressed on the grounds that the search was unconstitutional. After the district court ruled that agents were protected under the qualified immunity statute, Callahan appealed and the Utah Court of Appeals overturned the ruling, saying police should have obtained a search warrant and that the evidence that was seized from his home could not be used against him. Callahan then filed a federal lawsuit against Millard County and the agents, claiming they violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.
A Federal District Judge in Utah threw out Callahan’s suit, saying the agents did qualify for governmental immunity and added that officers also did not violate a "clearly established right." In July of last year, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver overturned that decision and found the agents were not protected by governmental immunity because they had no warrant and Callahan did not initially consent to their entry into his home, and that his consent of entry to their informant did not extend to the agents as they should have known that people have a right in their home to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
"The Agents went just a little bit to far on this one," said former federal inmate Larry Levine owner of prison consulting firm American Prison Consultants. "They always claim qualified immunity, even on things they know they can’t do. It’s just like the Hope case back in ’02.” Qualified immunity decisions have come under scrutiny since the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling in Hope v. Pelzer, 122 S. Ct. 2508. In that case, the justices voted 6-3 to reverse an 11th Circuit decision that had granted qualified immunity to Alabama prison guards who allegedly handcuffed a shirtless inmate to a hitching post in the hot Alabama sun, without regular water or bathroom while he was assigned to chain-gang duty. The Court ruled the officers should have known that their actions were unlawful and, therefore, they were not entitled to qualified immunity from damages.