After receiving a tip that Joseph Ramirez had an extensive set of weapons in his family ranch in Montana, an agent filed a request for a search warrant. Jeff Groh, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agent that wrote the request, mistakenly described the ranch instead of the item sought, which was an “explosive in a box”, in the search under the section labeled person or property to be seized. The warrant was issued and the property was searched, yet no explosives were discovered in the house. The Ramirezes sued, arguing that the incorrectly completed search warrant application made the search illegal, thus violating their Fourth Amendment rights. The Fourth Amendment requires that searches have a warrant that describes the place to be searched and the people or things to be seized. A district court ruled in the agents’ favor, claiming that the search did not violate the Constitution and that the agents had “qualified immunity” because they were on the job. The Court of Appeals reversed, writing that the agents involved are not immune as the district court had ruled. The Supreme Court determined that the search violated the Constitution because it is the warrant itself that determines what may be searched and seized under the warrant’s power, not the warrant application. Due to Harlow v. Fitzgerald and the particularity requirement, which declared that a warrant that did not comply with the definition in the Constitution cannot be valid, the warrant for the Ramirez’s house was invalid and the search was unreasonable.
Groh v. Ramirez
540 U.S. 551 (2004)
(The Invalid Warrant Case)
Respondents, Joseph Ramirez and members of his family, live on a large ranch in Butte-Silver Bow County, Montana. Petitioner, Jeff Groh, has been a Special Agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobaccoand Firearms (ATF) since 1989. In February 1997, a concerned citizen informed petitioner that on a number of visits to respondents' ranch the visitor had seen a large stock of weaponry, including an automatic rifle, grenades, a grenade launcher, and a rocket launcher. Based on that information, petitioner prepared and signed an application for a warrant to search the ranch. The application stated that the search was for "any automatic firearms or parts to automatic weapons, destructive devices to include but not limited to grenades, grenade launchers, rocket launchers, and any and all receipts pertaining to the purchase or manufacture of automatic weapons or explosive devices or launchers."Petitioner supported the application with a detailed affidavit, which he also prepared and executed, that set forth the basis for his belief that the listed items were concealed on the ranch. Petitioner then presented these documents to a Magistrate, along with a warrant form that petitioner also had completed. The Magistrate signed the warrant form.
Although the application particularly described the place to be searched and the contraband petitioner expected to find, the warrant itself was less specific; it failed to identify any of the items that petitioner intended to seize. In the portion of the form that called for a description of the "person or property"to be seized, petitioner typed a description of respondents' two-story blue house rather than the alleged stockpile of firearms. The warrant did not incorporate by reference the itemized list contained in the application. It did, however, recite that the Magistrate was satisfied the affidavit established probable cause to believe that contraband was concealed on the premises,and that sufficient grounds existed for the warrant's issuance.
The day after the Magistrate issued the warrant, petitioner led a team of law enforcement officers, including both federal agents and members of the local sheriff's department, in the search of respondents' premises. Although respondent Joseph Ramirez was not home, his wife and children were. Petitioner states that he orally described the objects of the search to Mrs. Ramirez in person and to Mr. Ramirez by telephone. According to Mrs. Ramirez, however, petitioner explained only that he was searching for "an explosive device in a box."At any rate, the officers' search uncovered no illegal weapons or explosives. When the officers left, petitioner gave Mrs. Ramirez a copy of the search warrant, but not a copy of the application, which had been sealed. The following day, in response to a request from respondents' attorney, petitioner faxed the attorney a copy of the page of the application that listed the items to be seized. No charges were filed against the Ramirezes."
The questions presented are (1) whether the search violated the Fourth Amendment, and (2) if so, whether petitioner nevertheless is entitled to qualified immunity, given that a Magistrate Judge (Magistrate), relying on an affidavit that particularly described the items in question, found probable cause to conduct the search. "
The warrant was plainly invalid. The Fourth Amendment states unambiguously that "no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." The warrant in this casecomplied with the first three of these requirements: It was based on probable cause and supported by a sworn affidavit, and it described particularly the place of the search. On the fourth requirement, however, the warrant failed altogether.
The fact that the application adequately described the "things to be seized" does not save the warrant from its facial invalidity. The Fourth Amendment by its terms requires particularity in the warrant, not in the supporting documents. We do not say that the Fourth Amendment prohibits a warrant from cross-referencing other documents. But in this case the warrant did not incorporate other documents by reference, nor did either the affidavit or the application (which had been placed under seal) accompany the warrant.
This warrant did not simply omit a few items from a list of many to be seized, or misdescribe a few of several items. Nor did it make what fairly could be characterized as a mere technical mistake or typographical error. Rather, in the space set aside for a description of the items to be seized, the warrant stated that the items consisted of a "single dwelling residence . . . blue in color." In other words, the warrant did not describe the items to be seized at all. In this respectthe warrant was so obviously deficient that we must regard the search as "warrantless" within the meaning of our case law. "Absent exigent circumstances, a warrantless entry to search for weapons or contraband is unconstitutional even when a felony has been committed and there is probable cause to believe that incriminating evidence will be found within."
Unless the particular items described in the affidavit are also set forth in the warrant itself (or at least incorporated by reference, and the affidavit present at the search), there can be no written assurance that the Magistrate actually found probable cause to search for, and to seize, every item mentioned in the affidavit.
The purpose of the particularity requirement is not limited to the prevention of general searches. A particular warrant also "assures the individual whose property is searched or seized ofthe lawful authority of the executing officer, his need to search, and the limits of his power to search."
Because petitioner did not have in his possession a warrant particularly describing the things he intended to seize, proceeding with the search was clearly "unreasonable" under the Fourth Amendment.
Petitioner, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent, prepared and signed an application for a warrant to search respondents' Montana ranch, which stated that the search was for specified weapons, explosives, and records. The application was supported by petitioner's detailed affidavit setting forth his basis for believing that such items were on the ranch and was accompanied by a warrant form that he completed. The Magistrate Judge (Magistrate) signed the warrant form even though it did not identify any of the items that petitioner intended to seize. The portion calling for a description of the "person or property" described respondents' house, not the alleged weapons; the warrant did not incorporate by reference the application's itemized list. Petitioner led federal and local law enforcement officers to the ranch the next day but found no illegal weapons or explosives. Petitioner left a copy of the warrant, but not the application, with respondents. Respondents sued petitioner and others under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents and 42 USC § 1983, claiming, inter alia, a Fourth Amendment violation. The District Court granted the defendants summary judgment, finding no Fourth Amendment violation, and finding that even if such a violation occurred, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. The Ninth Circuit affirmed except as to the Fourth Amendment claim against petitioner, holding that the warrant was invalid because it did not describe with particularity the place to be searched and the items to be seized. The court also concluded that United States v. Leonprecluded qualified immunity for petitioner because he was the leader of a search who did not read the warrant and satisfy himself that he understood its scope and limitations and that it was not obviously defective.
1. The search was clearly "unreasonable" under the Fourth Amendment.
(a) The warrant was plainly invalid. It did not meet the Fourth Amendment's unambiguous requirement that a warrant "particularly describ[e] . . . the persons or things to be seized." The fact that the application adequately described those things does not save the warrant; Fourth Amendment interests are not necessarily vindicated when another document says something about the objects of the search, but that document's contents are neither known to the person whose home is being searched nor available for her inspection. It is not necessary to decide whether the Amendment permits a warrant to cross-reference other documents, because such incorporation did not occur here.
(b) Petitioner's argument that the search was nonetheless reasonable is rejected. Because the warrant did not describe the items at all,it was so obviously deficient that the search must be regarded as warrantless, and thus presumptively unreasonable. This presumptive rule applies to searches whose only defect is a lack of particularity in the warrant. Petitioner errs in arguing that such searches should be exempt from the presumption if they otherwise satisfy the particularity requirement's goals. Unless items in the affidavit are set forth in the warrant, there is no written assurance that the Magistrate actually found probable cause for a search as broad as the affiant requested. The restraint petitioner showed in conducting the instant search was imposed by the agent himself, not a judicial officer. Moreover, the particularity requirement's purpose is not limited to preventing general searches; it also assures the individual whose property is searched and seized of the executing officer's legal authority, his need to search, and the limits of his power to do so. This case presents no occasion to reach petitioner's argument that the particularity requirements' goals were served when he orally described the items to respondents, because respondents dispute his account.
2. Petitioner is not entitled to qualified immunity despite the constitutional violation because "it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted." Given that the particularity requirement is stated in the Constitution's text, no reasonable officer could believe that a warrant that did not comply with that requirement was valid. Moreover, because petitioner prepared the warrant, he may not argue that he reasonably relied on the Magistrate's assurance that it contained an adequate description and was valid. Nor could a reasonable officer claim to be unaware of the basic rule that, absent consent or exigency, a warrantless search of a home is presumptively unconstitutional. "[A] warrant may be so facially deficient . . . that the executing officers cannot reasonably presume it to be valid." This is such a case.
The Court takes the warrant requirements outlined in the Constitution seriously. Law enforcement officers must include all elements.
How the Justices Voted
Majority: Stevens, O'Connor, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer Dissent: Kennedy, joined by Rehnquist Dissent: Thomas joined by Scalia, Rehnquist