The Fourth Circuit rules today, March 29, that a campus police officer executing a search warrant on the wrong dormitory room is entitled to qualified immunity from suit.  The case is Mazuz v. Maryland

When campus police at the University of Maryland learned of a potential drug ring in one of the on-campus dormitories, they obtained a warrant to search Room 5110.  An officer, dressed in combat black and with his gun drawn, knocked on the door and demanded entry.  When the student inside opened the door and saw the business end of a service revolver, he protested that there was a mistake.  That got him a reply of “Shut up,” and a pair of handcuffs.

And then the police discovered that they had in fact knocked on the door to room 5108, not 5110.  The handcuffed student had been doing nothing more dangerous than studying for a test the next day.  After a short (one to two minutes) stint in semi-official custody, he was released, and the police tried the right door this time.

By then, the first student’s nerves were shot.  He was unable to study, got a poor grade on the test (his professor denied his request for a postponement, evidently deciding that he’d heard this excuse before — “The police tried to arrest me last night, and I wasn’t doinganything!“), and eventually suffered from PTSD.  Unable to get a break from the professor, he turned to the courts instead.

In the district court, the trial judge denied the officer’s qualified immunity plea, finding it a close call, but deciding to allow it to go to the jury.  Those who litigate Section 1983 cases know that the officer gets an immediate interlocutory appeal when that happens, so the parties adjourned to Richmond.

Today, a panel of the appellate court reverses, finding that the actions of the officer did not violate the student’s Fourth Amendment rights.  In so holding, it allows the officer the reasonable leeway afforded law enforcement officers in resisting such suits, finding that the intrusion upon the student was brief and minimal, and was the result of an honest mistake about the room number.  This results from an application of the Graham v. Connor doctrine (which arises in an excessive force situation, but is applicable to this kind of claim as well), and means the student’s civil rights suit falls along with his grade point average.

This case is useful in its illustration of the difference between the roles of summary judgment in state and federal court.  In state court (at least in Virginia), summary judgment is a disfavored remedy; it is highly questionable whether this result would have been reached if the suit were heard before a state tribunal.  In federal court, summary judgment is favored as a means of docket control.  It is probably the case here that the outcome of this litigation was dispositively shaped by the court in which it was decided.