Qualified Immunity Granted Despite Unreasonable Conduct During Search Warrant Execution

Okorie v. Crawford, 2019 (5th Cir. 2019)

Dr. Ikechukwu Okorie was suspected of over-prescribing opioids and other pain medications and his medical license was revoked by the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure. Okorie sought recertification after completing new pain management training. The Board asked Okorie to appear at a Board meeting to assist in its final determination. In the meantime, a judge authorized an administrative inspection and issued a search warrant.

According to Okorie’s version of events, five Board investigators, a Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics agent, a Hattiesburg High Intensity Drug Trafficking Agent, and two federal DEA agents assisted in the warrant execution (for purposes of determining whether the officers were entitled to qualified immunity from suit, the court was required to assume Okorie’s factual claims). Okorie alleged that during the warrant execution he was detained without cause for three to four hours; guns were pointed at him; he was shoved, shouted at and humiliated in front of staff; and he was allowed to use the restroom only after pleading he was about to wet himself. Okorie alleged he was then allowed to use the restroom only with the door open to the view of female officers.

The Supreme Court has long held officers may detain the occupant of a residence where a criminal search warrant is being executed (Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692 (1981)). However, the law is not so clear on whether officers may detain the occupant of a business during the execution of a search warrant, particularly the execution of an administrative warrant, not a criminal search warrant.

No matter the basis for detaining the occupant—of a home or a business—the detention must comport with the Fourth Amendment reasonableness test.

No matter the basis for detaining the occupant—of a home or a business—the detention must comport with the Fourth Amendment reasonableness test. Because the court held “the intrusiveness of this one rendered it unconstitutional,” it did not resolve whether the administrative warrant carried the authority to detain Okorie. The warrant was executed at a business—a place where Okorie was likely to voluntarily remain during the warrant execution. That fact weighed in favor of the reasonableness of the detention, as did the need to detain Okorie to assist with identifying records subject to the search. However, the forceful pushing, shouted threats and pointed gun while urinating in the open view of many, including females, rendered the detention constitutionally unreasonable.

Even though the court strongly condemned the conditions of Okorie’s detention, the court held the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. The unreasonableness of detaining a person in like fashion was not “plainly established.” Qualified immunity “gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments,” and “protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law” (Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731 (2011)). Though the officers’ conduct was apparently offensive to the court, they did not find the officers met the test of plain incompetence or knowing lawbreaking.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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