Criminal Justice

Szajer v. City of Los Angeles

Szajer v. City of Los Angeles raised an important question that strikes at the core of the Constitution’s protections against unlawful searches and seizures: under what circumstances may the subject of an allegedly unlawful search or seizure bring a civil action to hold the offending law enforcement officers or agency responsible?

Case Summary

On June 1, 2011, CAC filed an amicus curiae brief in the Supreme Court in support of the Petition for a Writ of Certiorari in Szajer v. City of Los Angeles, in which the Ninth Circuit held that the Szajers could not proceed with their civil lawsuit alleging violations of their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Petition raises an important question that strikes at the core of the Constitution’s protections against unlawful searches and seizures: under what circumstances may the subject of an allegedly unlawful search or seizure bring a civil action to hold the offending law enforcement officers or agency responsible? This is a question that has sharply divided the federal Circuit Courts of Appeal since the Supreme Court decided in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), that civil actions that “necessarily” undermine a valid, outstanding criminal conviction (i.e., a conviction that has not been overturned or expunged through habeas or other appropriate proceedings) are barred.

Zoltan and Helene Szajer, owners of a licensed gun shop in West Hollywood, have sued the LAPD for allegedly searching their gun store without a warrant; while they pleaded no contest to possession of an illegal pistol found in their home pursuant to a search warrant, that conviction is not “necessarily” undermined by a suit against the police officers for allegedly searching their business without a warrant. Nothing in the allegedly warrantless search was used as the basis for the search warrant that was used to find the evidence of the crime for which the Szajers were eventually convicted. Accordingly, their civil damages lawsuit based on the warrantless search of their business does not necessarily imply the invalidity of the search warrant nor the Szajers’ conviction. However, because the Ninth Circuit—in conflict with other Circuits—overread Heck, it erroneously affirmed summary judgment against the Szajers.

Because of the important role envisioned by the drafters of the Constitution for civil actions in securing the fundamental right of the people to be free from unlawful government searches and seizures, CAC urged the Court to grant the Petition and review this case. In the Founding Era, English common law relied on civil damages actions to compensate for and deter unlawful searches and seizures. From the Founders’ perspective, the Fourth Amendment right of the people to be secure in their persons and property was fundamentally linked to common law civil damages actions used to enforce that right. We argued in CAC’s brief that the Court should clarify the narrow circumstances in which Heck bars Section 1983 actions and other civil remedies that are used to seek redress for allegedly unconstitutional searches or seizures.

On October 3, 2011, the Supreme Court denied certiorari.

Case Timeline

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