The United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument tomorrow in Messerschmidt v. Millender. In this § 1983 case, the Court will consider the circumstances in which a law enforcement officer who prepares or executes an overbroad and/or insufficiently particularized search warrant is entitled to qualified immunity from damages.
Orin Kerr has posted an analysis of the case over on SCOTUSblog; I have little to add to his thoughtful commentary. As Professor Kerr appears to, I anticipate that the Supreme Court will find that on the facts before it, the police officers in question are entitled to qualified immunity, and reverse the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
But what if it doesn’t? The case will return to the district court, and that’s when the really interesting (and under-examined) legal issues will arise. A very large share of the appellate caselaw that involves claims brought under § 1983 concentrates upon whether a defendant or defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. There is a relative dearth of precedent concerning matters such as damages and, especially, causation. On any remand in Messerschmidt, however, possible causation and damages problems with the plaintiffs’ case may loom large, as they did in the last warrant case decided by the Supreme Court, Groh v. Ramirez.
In Groh, as some of you may recall, a law enforcement officer (an ATF agent, to be precise) goofed by failing to list the items to be seized in the search warrant itself (in the space on the warrant reserved for identification of these items, he simply typed in the premises to be searched). These items were identified in the affidavit, however, which also stated probable cause for the search. On these facts, the Groh majority held that qualified immunity was not available to the officer.
Once the case was remanded back to the district court, the United States (Groh was a Bivens case) emphasized that the error in question really wasn’t the cause of significant damages. To understand this argument, recall that in tort law, a plaintiff must show that the defendant’s negligence was a “but for” cause (also known as a “cause-in-fact”) of the plaintiff’s injury. The key word is “negligence,” to be distinguished from “conduct.” The Third Restatement of Torts illustrates this point using a hypothetical driver who hits a pedestrian while driving 57 miles per hour in a 50-mile-per-hour zone. According to the Restatement, if the pedestrian sues the driver for negligence, her claim will falter for lack of causation, unless the driver would not have hit the pedestrian (or would have caused less damage) if he had been driving at the 50-mile-per-hour speed limit. (Significantly, in the Restatement’s ‘non-negligent’ counterfactual, the driver is operating his vehicle at a speed that’s at the very cusp of negligence.)
Similarly, on remand in Groh, after pointing out that conventional tort rules regarding causation apply in § 1983 cases, the United States argued that in a perfect world that resembled what actually happened—except that there was no drafting error with the warrant—a search warrant for the premises still could and would have been issued and executed, in precisely the same way that the flawed warrant was. Therefore, according to the United States, the plaintiff in Groh should receive only nominal damages, since the agent’s error, properly isolated, did not cause any actual damages.
Groh settled prior to trial, so we don’t know how that argument worked out for the United States. Nevertheless, it seems likely that if the Supreme Court affirms the Ninth Circuit in Messerschmidt, the defense will make a similar argument on remand. The principal damage item in Messerschmidt appears to be the alleged emotional distress associated with the officers’ entry. (Here, keep in mind that the warrant was executed at around 5:00 a.m.) As in Groh, the defense will stress that the same entry presumably would have occurred pursuant to a properly tailored warrant, meaning that the plaintiffs’ primary damage item wasn’t really caused by the problem with the warrant.
This argument has its strengths and weaknesses (or at least, limitations), which I will avoid for now. Perhaps the more important point is that while we all focus a great deal on qualified immunity, other elements of a § 1983 cause of action remain precedential terra incognita, or nearly so, as to many of the different types of claims catalyzed by the statute. It takes time to “fill in” the law surrounding a legal theory, and there simply haven’t been enough published decisions regarding many § 1983 theories for this to have occurred.
Moreover, certain attributes of a cause of action tend to be “filled in” faster than others. My suspicion is that but-for causation is typically either the last, or one of the last elements of a claim to develop a substantial body of useful caselaw-created rules. The delay owes to the fact that but-for causation is doubly shielded from appellate review. A jury normally determines the “cut-off” line between negligence (or otherwise improper conduct) and non-negligent behavior; and as the Restatement hypothetical illustrates, it is this cut-off that serves as the baseline for their subsequent causation determination. In effect, an appellate court tasked to review a but-for causation determination by a jury must peer inside a black box that is itself hidden inside another black box. Little wonder, then, that there exist few useful but-for causation guideposts in the caselaw.