Two businessmen who claimed they were robbed of more than $225,000 by police in Fresno, California during an investigation into illegal gambling saw their civil rights lawsuit dismissed last week, when the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it was “not obvious” that theft by cop would violate their Fourth Amendment rights. Writing for a unanimous court, Judge Milan Smith held that even if police officers did steal (an allegation they repeatedly denied), the two men “did not have a clearly established Fourth or Fourteenth Amendment right to be free from the theft of property seized pursuant to a warrant.” As a result, the officers would still be entitled to “qualified immunity” and could not be sued for damages in federal court.
Back in September 2013, Fresno police executed a search warrant into three properties owned by Micah Jessop and Brittan Ashjian, who run an ATM business. After the search, officers handed the businessmen an inventory sheet stating they had seized around $50,000. But Jessop and Ashjian claimed that police actually took $151,380 in cash as well as $125,000 in rare coins, and simply “stole the difference” (over $225,000) between those amounts and what was officially reported. Neither man was charged with a crime.
Jessop and Ashjian filed a lawsuit claiming that Fresno police violated their Fourth Amendment right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures” and their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. “Unquestionably,” they argued in court documents, “the theft of over $100,000 and collectible coins/currency exceeded the legitimate scope of the search warrant.”
Like many other civil-rights plaintiffs, Jessop and Ashjian sued the Fresno officers under Section 1983 of the U.S. Code, which lets Americans sue government officials for “the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” But in its 1982 decision, Harlow v. Fitzgerald, the U.S. Supreme Court substantially reformulated the doctrine of qualified immunity, which made it much more difficult for plaintiffs to show that the immunity should be lifted.
Essentially, qualified immunity lets government officials sidestep Section 1983 lawsuits, “insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known,” the court held in Harlow. According to the Supreme Court, qualified immunity would encourage “the vigorous exercise of official authority” and would protect government officials “from undue interference with their duties and from potentially disabling threats of liability.”