The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled unanimously that police officers who entered a home in search of guns amid an investigation of a rumored threat of school violence were immune from a family's lawsuit alleging a constitutional violation.
The justices issued an unsigned opinion without hearing arguments in Ryburn v. Huff (Case No. 11-208). The court overturned a ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, that had denied qualified immunity to two officers from the Burbank, Calif., police department.
The case stems from an incident at Bellarmine-Jefferson High School, a Roman Catholic school in Burbank. According to court papers, on June 1, 2007, Burbank police officers Darin Ryburn and Edmundo Zepeda responded to a call from school officials concerned about rumors that a student had written a letter stating that he planned to "shoot up" the school.
The two officers had received training on investigation of school threats based on the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and other incidents. They knew that school shooters were often the victims of bullying and were absent from school for some length of time before shootings occurred.
The officers learned that student Vincent Huff had been bullied and had been absent for two days, and at least one classmate believed the student was capable of carrying out the threat. Still, no existence of the threat letter could be confirmed.
The officers went to Huff's home to interview him. After some difficulty in finding whether anyone was at home, Huff and his mother came to the front steps. Huff appeared to be aware of the rumors and told the officers, "I can't believe you're here for that."
Sgt. Ryburn asked the mother whether they could come inside to continue the conversation. She refused, which Ryburn thought was unusual in his experience as a juvenile investigator. Ryburn then asked whether there were any guns in the house.
Mrs. Huff responded by immediately turning around and running into the house, court papers say. Ryburn was alarmed by her response and entered the house behind her, followed by Zepeda and other Burbank officers. They remained in the house for five to 10 minutes, continuing to question Huff and his mother. They did not perform a search of the home, but they did conclude that the rumor about Huff was false.
The principal of Bellarmine-Jefferson High sent a letter to parents that same day, stating that the police "concluded, as did I, that [the rumored threat] was an example of vicious and irresponsible gossip. Unfortunately, a student and his family have been deeply hurt and upset."
The Huffs sued the police under a federal civil rights law, claiming that the officers violated their Fourth Amendment rights by entering their home without a warrant. A federal district court ruled that the officers merited qualified immunity because they were faced with a "rapidly evolving incident."
A panel of the 9th Circuit court ruled 2-1 in favor of the Huffs last year. The majority said it was unreasonable for the officers to believe they were in serious, imminent harm because Mrs. Huff "merely asserted her right to end her conversation with the officers and returned to her home."
In their appeal to the Supreme Court, the officers said that among the reasons the court should review their case was to provide better guidance to the police in school shooting investigations.
"Police should be given clear direction on the ... legal limits of their powers in conducting investigations which might prevent a future Jonesboro, Columbine, or Virginia Tech," the officers' appeal said. "No one wants another school shooting tragedy that could have been averted, but for the delay in confronting the suspect at his home—where the weapons are usually obtained."
In a brief that urged the justices not to take up the case, lawyers for the Huff family said the officers were "asking the [Supreme] Court to use the national issue of school shooting threats as the basis for diminishing the protections afforded to all citizens under the Fourth Amendment from unwarranted intrusions by police officers into one's home without a warrant, exigent circumstances, or an emergency approximated by probable cause."
In its unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court backed the officers, although the opinion said little about the context of a school shooting investigation as opposed to any other situation in which the police might have been concerned about a homeowner who rushed back inside when asked about guns.
"Judged from the proper perspective of a reasonable officer forced to make a split-second decision in response to a rapidly unfolding chain of events that culminated with Mrs. Huff turning and running into the house after refusing to answer a question about guns, [the officers'] belief that entry was necessary to avoid injury to themselves or others was imminently reasonable," the high court said.
The justices reversed the decision of the 9th Circuit court and ordered that judgment be entered for the Burbank officers.