In Doe v. Groody, decided on March 19, 2004, the majority held that it was clearly established that unless a search warrant specifically incorporates a police officer’s sworn statement (the affidavit) made at the time that a warrant is requested, the scope of the warrant may not be broadened by language in the affidavit.
The search warrant for Doe’s residence was attached to another piece of paper titled “Search Warrant and Affidavit.” That separate paper contained open blocks for someone to type information. In response to the questions “date of violation” and “probable cause belief,” it specifically referred to the typed affidavit of probable cause attached to the warrant. But in answering the question “specific description of premises and/or persons to be searched,” the affidavit was not mentioned. Rather, the form contained a typewritten entry naming only John Doe and his residence.
Armed with the warrant and anticipating that they would encounter females inside the home, police enlisted a female officer to be available to assist in the search. The female officer removed both Jane and Mary Doe to an upstairs bathroom. They were instructed to empty their pockets and lift their shirts. The female officer patted their pockets. She then told Jane and Mary Doe to drop their pants and turn around. No contraband was found.
Doe (the family name is altered to protect their identities) filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the officers illegally strip searched the wife and child. Officers appealed when the case was not dismissed against them on the grounds of “qualified immunity”, based on their status as police officers. Qualified immunity is a defense that requires courts to enter judgment in favor of a government employee accused of violating individual rights unless the employee’s conduct violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known”.
Thus, the central issue in Doe was whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that strip searching the suspect’s wife and ten-year-old daughter without a warrant was unlawful. The majority’s reasoning turned on the sharp distinction that federal law (and New Jersey law) draws between what is authorized in a warrant, and what is merely requested by the police in the affidavit.
The majority noted that the provisions of the affidavit seeking to justify an “all occupants” search was based on the sworn statement that “visitors may be present purchasing drugs and that dealers often give contraband to non-residents in the hopes they will not be searched.” The affidavit contained no assertion that narcotics dealers often hide drugs on family members and young children, as opposed to visitors. Thus, even if the affiants had probable cause to believe that Doe would hide drugs on his wife and child, the judge reviewing the affidavit would not have known about the basis for it. This made it that much more unreasonable to read permission to search the wife and child into the text of the warrant.
The majority also cited to U.S. Supreme Court precedent that a search warrant for a premises does not constitute a license to search everyone inside. Ybarra v. Illinois, 444 U.S. 85, 100 (1979). Ultimately, the majority held that the search of Jane and Mary Doe violated the Fourth Amendment in the criminal law context and that this violation transgressed “clearly established” rights in the civil lawsuit context.