(If you are new to 1983 actions, click here for help)
In March 2019, at approximately 7:15 p.m., Waxahachie Police Department (“WPD”) SWAT Team Commander Mike Lewis received a call from a Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) officer. The DEA officer needed assistance executing a search warrant that night on a suspected methamphetamine “stash” house located at 573 8th Street, Lancaster, Texas (“target house”). The officer provided Commander Lewis with information about a drug deal involving the target house. Lewis requested further information, including pictures of the target house, whether the location was fortified, whether it appeared to have surveillance equipment, and whether there were any exterior indicators on the property that children may be present. He also requested identifying information on the methamphetamine seller, as well as prior law enforcement history at that address involving the Lancaster Police Department (“LPD”).
In response, Lewis received pictures showing the front of the house and was told there was surveillance established at the location. DEA agents told Lewis that they saw no fortification or surveillance cameras at the property or any evidence of children. The agents had no description of the people occupying the target house. Lewis entered the information into the WPD SWAT’s risk analysis assessment worksheet, which scored the incident within the range for optional SWAT deployment. Consequently, Lewis contacted the WPD Chief and received approval to activate the SWAT team. He also gathered information on the target house from the Dallas Central Appraisal District website, including that the house was 744 square feet, was built in 1952, and had a large, deeply extending backyard.
Lewis then briefed SWAT officers at the WPD. The group decided to have a six-member team enter the target house and a three-member team enter the detached garage and backyard. Thereafter, Lewis received real-time intelligence that surveillance officers at the scene reported a truck pulling a white box trailer had pulled up in front of the target location. (The record indicates that this intelligence was not accurate. Later investigation revealed that the white trailer was in front of 583 8th Street — not the target house).
When Lewis received a copy of the warrant, he confirmed the address of the target house. The officers then finalized their preparations. LPD Officer Zachary Beauchamp led the SWAT team to the target house. Beauchamp was followed by the SWAT team vehicle, then Lewis in his marked patrol unit, then the Waxahachie K9, and then several unmarked DEA vehicles. Beauchamp was directed to stop about a house before the target location, so SWAT officers could make an approach on foot.
When they arrived at the area, the SWAT team vehicle’s driver saw Beauchamp’s vehicle stop abruptly, causing him to believe Beauchamp may have driven too far and stopped them too close to the target location. As the officers exited their vehicles, Beauchamp pointed to the house with the truck and white trailer in front of it, and officers began their approach. As the SWAT team began gathering on the front porch, however, Lewis realized that the house did not look like the house from intelligence photos. The SWAT team had assembled at 583 8th Street, not at the target house at 573 8th Street.
When Lewis looked one house to the left, he decided the layout of the front of that house matched the one in the intel photos. Lewis noticed that from left to right, it had one large window, followed by the front entry door, followed by a small window and then four larger windows. He also noticed that the driveway was on the left side of the property, and he believed numbers on the front of the house read “573,” though the porch light obscured his view. This house, it turns out, was also the wrong house. The house Lewis identified was 593 8th Street, two doors down from the target house.
Nevertheless, Lewis told the team that they were at the wrong house and instructed them to go to the house just to the left of the house where they were. That house was the home of plaintiffs Karen Jimerson, James Parks, and their two young sons and daughter. Officers ran to the front of the plaintiffs’ house, deployed a flashbang, broke the front windows, and breached the door. The officers began a protective sweep and checked for occupants. They encountered two females whom they told to get on the ground. The officers then encountered an adult male, but before they could direct him to get down, SWAT team members yelled “Wrong House!”
The SWAT team left the plaintiffs’ home and proceeded to the target house. After the target house was secured, Lewis returned to the plaintiffs’ house, where he joined other DEA agents who were already checking on the plaintiffs’ welfare. Plaintiff Karen Jimerson reported some pain in her side. Lewis called an ambulance and she was taken to the hospital. Lewis also coordinated with a glass company to make repairs and remained on the scene until 1:30 a.m.
A WPD internal investigation determined that reasonable and normal protocol was completely overlooked and the WPD Chief of Police stated that these kinds of mistakes should not happen. Lewis was suspended for two days without pay. In September 2020, the plaintiffs brought this action under Section 1983. They alleged violations of the Fourth Amendment. The defendants moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The magistrate judge recommended the district court grant qualified immunity to all the officers, whether they entered the house or not. The magistrate judge also concluded the plaintiffs failed to show that Lewis did not make reasonable efforts to identify the target house. The district court agreed with the magistrate judge’s analysis on qualified immunity except with respect to whether Lewis made reasonable efforts to identify the target house. The court found a genuine dispute of material fact regarding whether Lewis made the necessary reasonable effort to identify the correct residence and whether his actions were inconsistent with a reasonable effort to ascertain and identify the place intended to be searched. The court denied Lewis qualified immunity. Lewis timely appealed. The 5th reversed and granted Lewis qualified immunity.
We consider whether Lewis’s conduct was objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law. Clearly established law is determined by reference to controlling authority, or a robust consensus of persuasive authority. See Delaughter. The keystone in this analysis is fair warning. To overcome qualified immunity, plaintiffs must cite a body of relevant case law in which an officer acting under similar circumstances was held to have violated a defendant’s constitutional rights. While there need not be a case directly on point, the unlawfulness of the challenged conduct must be beyond debate.
Compliance with the Fourth Amendment requires a law enforcement officer’s reasonable efforts to ascertain and identify the place intended to be searched. In applying that general principle, the district court relied on two opinions. One was a nonprecedential opinion of this court. See Rogers. The other was nonprecedential in the Fifth Circuit because it was issued by a different circuit court of appeals. See Hartsfield v. Lemacks, 50 F.3d 950 (11th Cir. 1995).The plaintiffs do not cite any other authority.
In Rogers, we affirmed a grant of qualified immunity. Officers secured a warrant to search a suspected drug house. Before executing the warrant, officers drove by the target house to confirm its location. They saw a maroon vehicle parked in front of the target house. The officers then briefed their team on the location of the home and developed a plan for executing the warrant. The night of the warrant’s execution, however, the maroon vehicle was parked in front of the house next door to the target house. Officers broke into that house before ultimately realizing their mistake. We emphasized that the officers made several efforts to identify the correct residence, including conducting initial surveillance of the house shortly before the warrant was executed, though the officers increased the chance for mistake by approaching the house in the opposite direction than they would use later. There were differences in appearance between the mistaken house and target house, but those differences were less noticeable at night. Further, we acknowledged the confusion that arose from the fact that a car that earlier had been thought to be in front of the house to be searched was instead in front of the plaintiffs’ home when the search began. The officers made reasonable efforts, though obviously insufficient ones, to identify the correct house.
In Hartsfield, the Eleventh Circuit determined than an officer was not entitled to qualified immunity when he executed a warrant at the wrong residence. The officer had been to the proper residence the day before. On the day of the raid, though, he did little to assure he was leading officers to the correct address: As it is uncontroverted that the numbers on the houses are clearly marked, and that the raid took place during daylight hours, simply checking the warrant would have avoided the mistaken entry. Moreover, evidence before the court showed that the houses were located on different parts of the street, separated by at least one other residence, and that their appearances were distinguishable. Searching the wrong residence when the officer had done nothing to make sure he was searching the house described in the warrant violated clearly established law.
Lewis erred, but he made significant efforts to identify the correct residence. As the district court summarized, Lewis (1) reviewed the search warrant; (2) conducted additional searches on the target residence through the Dallas Central Appraisal District website; (3) ran a computerized criminal history search of the occupant of the target residence; (4) debriefed with DEA agents twice; (5) was provided with real time intelligence that surveillance officers at the scene reported a truck pulling a white box trailer just pulled up in front of the target location and stopped; and (6) observed the home and took note of the front windows, driveway, and the numbers on the front of the home in an attempt to confirm the residence as being the target location.
To elaborate on that final point, Lewis was careful to confirm the house had the proper arrangement and size of windows, but only later became aware that those window features were shared by the plaintiffs’ home. Moreover, Lewis’s confusion was compounded by misleading intelligence. When officers arrived, the white-box trailer was not parked in front of the target house. Lewis correctly identified that fact, but then erred in redirecting the officers. Lewis was far more careful than the officers in the two opinions cited to us as showing he violated clearly established law.
The central concern when evaluating the immunity question is whether the official has fair warning that his conduct violates a constitutional right. That means the dispositive question is whether the violative nature of particular conduct is clearly established. Here, the plaintiffs have not cited authority demonstrating that Lewis’s conduct violated clearly established law.
We REVERSE the district court’s denial of summary judgment to Lewis and REMAND in order for the district court to dismiss this suit.