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Cybernet, LLC v. David: 4th Circuit Adopts Objective Reasonableness Standard for §1983 Claims for Damage to Property During the Execution of a Search Warrant

The Fourth Amendment dictates that people are secure against unreasonable searches and seizures, and much ink has been spilt and litigation incurred to determine when a search or seizure violated this standard. Most Fourth Amendment cases assess the validity of a search or seizure itself, but the protections of the Fourth Amendment do not disappear after officers enter to conduct a lawful search. Here, plaintiff-appellants did not contest the validity of the search, but instead claimed that the execution of the search warrant violated their constitutional rights. Adopting an objective reasonableness standard (as in other Fourth Amendment settings) and referring to the discretion conferred upon officers executing the search warrant, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants. 

The case arose from the search of two video sweepstakes stores. North Carolina law allows such establishments to operate, but only if the sweepstakes offered are predominated by skill instead of chance. Local law enforcement and the district attorney suspected the plaintiff-appellants were in violation of this law and their investigation led to the search warrant which formed the basis of this litigation. Lurking just below the surface were allegations that the district attorney had targeted the plaintiffs’ owners for years and the incident was tinged with politics after the plaintiffs’ owners had made substantial donations to the sheriff’s election campaign and the sheriff had only agreed to investigate to avoid embarrassment—sordid allegations that plaintiffs believed were the true reasons for the search. 

During the search itself, plaintiffs alleged that police caused damage to lighting, wiring, cables, a table, and other related property. There was also a fire three days after the searches that the plaintiffs alleged was a direct result of the search. 

 In concluding that objective reasonableness is the governing standard, the Fourth Circuit looked to two other applications of the objective reasonableness standard in cases under 42 U.S.C. §1983—excessive force claims during the seizure of a person and qualified immunity. The Fourth Circuit noted that it would be odd to hold that an officer’s subjective intent was irrelevant in determining whether excessive force had been applied during the seizure of a person but that the same subjective intent could be considered when considering an excessive force claim as to property damage during the execution of a search. As to qualified immunity, the court noted that subjective intent plays no role in the analysis and that precluding a subjective inquiry here works in harmony with that standard. 

This holding meshes well with existing case law, which might be summed up this way—courts are very hesitant to second guess law enforcement. By applying only an objective reasonableness test, courts obviate the need for discovery into what law enforcement was thinking or why law enforcement took certain actions. It is a much simpler analysis for courts and one which makes it more difficult for a §1983 claim to succeed. 

When the Fourth Circuit turned to analyze this search, it held that the damage to the stores was not major and noted there were many cases where more extensive damage had not resulted in liability. After this comparison, the court pronounced what its true consideration was in considering the damages resulting from a search: “damage that has little connection to the object of the search should raise judicial eyebrows, whereas some damage incident to the seizure of objects within a warrant’s scope may be unremarkable.” Cybernet, LLC v. David, U.S. App. LEXIS 9163 at *19 (4th Cir. Mar. 24, 2020). Based on this pronouncement, the real inquiry is not the quantum of damages but whether the damages resulted from deviating from the warrant authorizing the search. The court further analyzed plaintiffs’ allegations that much of the damages were completely avoidable, but a lack of evidence of the alleged damages combined with the discretion afforded law enforcement during the execution of a search warrant meant that the plaintiffs also failed to survive summary judgment on this basis. 

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