The beginning of the Court's opinion in Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335 (1986) describes a wiretapped phone call that led police to obtain a warrant against Plaintiff James Briggs:

"General conversation re. a party they went to last night . . . caller says I can't believe I was token [sic] in front of Jimmy Briggs -- caller states he passed it to Louisa . . . Paul says Nancy was sitting in his lap rolling her thing."

Police brought drug-possession charges against the plaintiff, but the grand jury declined to indict. Briggs then brought a Section 1983 claim for malicious prosecution, and the Court held that the claim was viable if the officer should have known "that his affidavit failed to establish probable cause, and that he should not have applied for the warrant."

It may not even be the point of the case, but does the Court's decision give any indication that the affidavit did or did not meet that standard?


No. It affirmed the appeals decision and remanded the case to the lower court to decide that as a matter of fact, it was irrelevant to the ruling whether the officer and/or magistrate had probable cause.

Basically the ruling said that should have been addressed before giving a judgement, and not glossed over. If the lower court had said, and the court of appeals had affirmed, that there was probable cause and thus the officer was entitled to qualified immunity, the high court would have denied certiorari and let the decision stand.

Instead, the lower court said, true statements, immune, which puts the total burden on the magistrate.

Say that officer had a sworn statement saying that John Doe of 123 Main Street was seen committing murder. The officer goes to a magistrate and says that they have a sworn statement that John Doe was seen committing murder, and there is a John Doe at 321 First Street, please issue an arrest and search warrant for John Doe at 321 First Avenue. Omitting the fact that the identified John Doe is at a different address, doesn’t change the truth of the rest of the information submitted to the magistrate.

According to the lower courts ruling, that would be entirely legal and the officer could not be held accountable.

According to the Supreme Court, the officer would be liable because while the facts were true no reasonable officer would believe there was probable cause to issue a warrant for a different John Doe under the circumstances.

The dissenting opinion in this case amounts to saying that the affidavit was good, and they could directly affirm the appeals court ruling.

  • To sum up: If your last name was Cosby and your parents decided to name you William after the star of a popular Sitcom in the 80s, the police can not execute a search warrent against you because that other William Cosby put something funny in the Jello Pudding Pops. There's a difference between being "a Bill Cosby" and being "the Bill Cosby (that the police are investigating for a crime)."
    – hszmv
    Mar 26 at 12:42
  • @hszmv: and the original judge said there wasn’t, as long as the officer didn’t lie. The Supremes said, lie or not, if the officer knows it’s invalid, they are liable, no matter how many magistrates sign off on it. Judge used a one step process, officer didn’t lie, immune, Supremes says use two step process, (1) did officer lie, yes=not immune, no=>(2) was officers request reasonable, yes=immune, no=not immune.
    – jmoreno
    Mar 26 at 22:46

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