Access to Justice

Jessop v. City of Fresno

In Jessop v. City of Fresno, the Supreme Court was asked to consider whether police officers who allegedly stole property while executing a search warrant were immune from being sued for violating the Fourth Amendment.  The Supreme Court denied the petition for certiorari.

Case Summary

After local police officers searched the homes and business of Micah Jessop and Brittan Ashjian, more than $100,000 in cash and $125,000 in rare coins went missing. Jessop and Ashjian sued the officers and the City of Fresno under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a statute that authorizes damages actions against state and local officials for constitutional violations, arguing that the officers’ alleged theft violated their Fourth Amendment right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that under the doctrine of qualified immunity the officers cannot be sued because, according to the court, it is not “clearly established” that this type of theft violates the Fourth Amendment. Jessop and Ashjian then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, asking the Supreme Court to review the decision.

CAC filed an amicus brief in support of the certiorari petition, urging the Supreme Court to grant the petition, reverse the lower court’s decision, and to use this opportunity to reform its qualified immunity doctrine. As our brief explained, qualified immunity in its present form has no grounding in the text or history of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which was enacted in a landmark civil rights law of the Reconstruction era that was meant to deter constitutional violations by state and local officials by providing victims with a federal damages remedy. While Congress intended Section 1983 to incorporate certain well-known immunities that were recognized by the common law at the time, today’s qualified immunity rules have no relationship to these historically established standards. Instead, these rules often make it impossible to hold officials accountable for their constitutional violations.

Furthermore, our brief explained why today’s qualified immunity doctrine is at odds with the purposes of both the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Framers of the Fourth Amendment expected that victims of unconstitutional searches and seizures would be able to protect their rights, and deter future violations, through jury trials and damages awards. After the Civil War, the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment sought to expand this protection and other safeguards of the Bill of Rights to cover state governments, which were then flagrantly violating individual rights across the South. Congress later passed Section 1983 to help people vindicate these newly established rights by holding state and local officials financially accountable for their constitutional violations. Today, however, the Supreme Court’s qualified immunity doctrine allows those same types of violations to go unchecked, undermining the broad, remedial aim of the law that Congress passed.

Case Timeline

  • April 13, 2020

    CAC files amicus curiae brief in support of certiorari petition

    U.S. Sup. Ct. Amicus Brief
  • May 18, 2020

    Supreme Court denies petition for certiorari

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