Second Circuit: Police Officer Entitled to Qualified Immunity For Reading Stopped Driver’s Mail

Winfield v. Trottier, 11-4404 (2nd Cir. March 6, 2013) (JACOBS, Pooler, Hall): Plaintiffs sued a Vermont state trooper under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that he violated their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by reading an item of mail uncovered during a search of plaintiff’s car during a traffic stop.

The Second Circuit held that, although the trooper’s actions violated the Fourth Amendment, he was entitled to qualified immunity because the right violated was not “clearly established”.  The court thus reversed the lower court’s decision denying summary judgment to the trooper.

Qualified immunity “protects officials from liability for civil damages as long as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

The first step in the analysis is to

determine the level of generality at which the relevant ‘legal rule’ is to be identified. To do so, we should balance … the interests in vindication of citizens’ constitutional rights and in public officials’ effective performance in their duties. … The right must be defined in a more particularized, and hence more relevant, sense: The contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.

Here, the district court mistakenly defined the right “at a level so general as to be insufficiently clear”, namely, that “it is a violation of a suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights for a consensual search to exceed the scope of the consent given.”  Rather,

the right at issue is properly stated as follows: It is a Fourth Amendment violation when a police officer reads a suspect’s private papers, the text of which is not in plain view, while conducting a search authorized solely by the suspect’s generalized consent to search the area in which the papers are found. No prior case in the Second Circuit has so held. (Emphasis added.)

Thus, the trooper’s “actions were objectively legally reasonable in light of the legal rules that were clearly established at the time it was taken” such that he was entitled to qualified immunity.

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