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High court rules for police in chase of suspect onto private property

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
updated 11:26 AM EST, Mon November 4, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A California homeowner sued police after an officer chased a suspect onto her property
  • She says the officer invaded her home without a warrant, but a judge sided with the officer
  • On appeal, a federal court found for the homeowner, allowing the lawsuit to proceed
  • The U.S. Supreme Court sides with the officer, citing his "qualified immunity"

(CNN) -- A California police officer won his appeal Monday at the Supreme Court, after being sued for chasing a suspect onto private property without a warrant.

At issue is whether a homeowner's "expectation of privacy" was violated, since there was no "immediate danger" to law enforcement and the alleged offense -- disobeying the police -- was a misdemeanor.

The justices said Officer Mike Stanton of the La Mesa Police Department had "qualified immunity" from civil claims of unreasonable search and seizure.

"There is no suggestion in this case that Officer Stanton knowingly violated the Constitution," specifically the Fourth Amendment, said the unsigned opinion from the high court. "Stanton may have been mistaken in believing his actions were justified, but he was not 'plainly incompetent.' "

Judges generally give wide latitude in justifying police chases involving felonies and use of weapons, but in cases where the circumstances are less clear, there can be tricky legal questions like those presented here.

The incident happened in May 2008, in a neighborhood east of San Diego that lower courts had said was known for "violence associated with drug gangs."

Stanton and his partner responded to a 911 call about an "unknown disturbance" concerning a person with a baseball bat. The officers arrived in their marked vehicle, saw three people and ordered them to stop. One of the men, who carried no noticeable weapon, ran into a nearby fenced residential yard. Stanton pursued, and believing the suspect had committed a misdemeanor, made the "split-second" decision to kick open a 6-foot-high gate.

The owner of the property, Drendolyn Sims, happened to be on the other side of the gate and was struck when it flew inward, cutting her forehead and injuring her shoulder.

Sims sued in federal court, alleging the officer invaded her home without a warrant. A judge agreed with the officer, saying the situation was potentially dangerous, Stanton "feared for his safety" and he was justified going after the fleeing suspect.

But a federal appeals court in San Francisco found for Sims, allowing the lawsuit to proceed. Now, the high court has reversed, saying previous rulings made clear that Stanton deserved immunity from civil claims. The conservative majority court in recent years has given the benefit of the doubt to law enforcement in a number of cases involving searches of private property.

"Stanton was in hot pursuit of" the suspect, said the high court. "He did see (the suspect) enter Sims' property, and he had every reason to believe that the suspect was just beyond Sims' gate."

The issue was thrown back to the lower courts to be sorted out, after the Supreme Court's conclusions, and could lead to the lawsuit's final dismissal.

The case is Stanton v. Sims (12-1217).

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