U.S. Supreme Court Reverses 10th Circuit Warrantless Search Decision

On January 21, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a decision from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rejecting the application of qualified immunity in the case of Pearson v. Callahan.   The case was a victory for Peter Stirba, a 1976 graduate of the U of U College of Law, who represented the petitioners in the matter.

Pearson v. Callahan began with a drug bust in Fillmore, Utah.  Working in concert with the area drug task force, a confidential informant bought $100 of methamphetamine from Afton Callahan’s trailer home.   By prearrangement, the informant signaled members of the task force when the transaction was complete.  Members of the task force then raided Callahan’s home and arrested him.

Callahan was charged in state court with possession and distribution of methamphetamine.  At his trial, he challenged the officers’ warrantless entry into his house as unconstitutional.  Callahan entered a conditional guilty plea while appealing on constitutional grounds.  The Utah Court of Appeals agreed with Callahan, declared the search unconstitutional and overturned his conviction.

At this point, Callahan brought suit in federal court against the officers who searched his home, arguing that they had violated the Fourth Amendment.  District Court Judge Paul Cassell, who has since left the bench to return to teaching at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, granted summary judgment in favor of the officers.  Cassell concluded that the police were entitled to immunity because they could reasonably have believed that the doctrine of “consent-once-removed” applied in the matter.  That doctrine permits a warrantless police entry into a home when consent to enter has already been granted to an undercover officer who has observed contraband in plain view.  Cassell further noted that three circuits had adopted the “consent-once-removed” doctrine.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court decision and reinstated Callahan’s lawsuit.   The appeals court held that petitioners were not entitled to a broadening of the “consent-once-removed” exception to include confidential informants.

In agreeing to hear the matter, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the issues of whether members of the task force violated the Fourth Amendment; whether they are entitled to qualified immunity; and whether the controversial rule of Saucier v. Katz, which introduced a two-part test for deciding qualified immunity, should be overruled.

Read the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Pearson v. Callahan