Sheriff Who Acted Based on Overbroad Warrant Denied Qualified Immunity in Civil Rights Case

Cassidy v. Goering, No. 07-1092, 5/28/09 (published) - Denial of qualified immunity to defendant sheriff who supervised search pursuant to invalid warrant affirmed by divided court. The opinions are great primers on the severability concept.

Plaintiff farmer who allowed another farmer to store grain at plaintiff’s farm got into an altercation with the other farmer over failure to pay for the storage. Both farmers call the cops. Other farmer tells cops that plaintiff was growing pot on the farm, so they got a warrant that authorized search related to that offense, as well as any evidence of any other crime that might have been committed in any jurisdiction. Cops trashed the place, top to bottom. Judge in criminal case suppressed all evidence seized because the warrant was overbroad, so criminal charges were dismissed.

Plaintiff sued. District court denied qualified immunity, case proceeded to trial, and plaintiff won, but new trial was granted because the amount of damages awarded was way too small. Sheriff renewed his pretrial motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity, which was again denied, so sheriff appealed. The 10th affirmed because, even assuming the criminal law concept of severability applies in civil rights cases, it could not save this facially overbroad warrant, about which the law was clearly established. Judge McConnell dissented, based on his view that severability did apply.