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Trump Judge Grants Qualified Immunity Despite Evidence That Officer Lied to Get Search Warrant: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

Eric Murphy
News & Analysis

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.

Trump Sixth Circuit judge Eric Murphy wrote an opinion reversing the district court and granting qualified immunity to two police officers who searched a Detroit woman’s home, despite evidence that one of those officers lied to obtain the search warrant. The May 2020 decision was in Bullock v. City of Detroit.

One fall day in 2015, Christanna Bullock took her granddaughter to an amusement park several hours from her home in Detroit. Unbeknownst to her, police officer Joseph Castro had obtained a warrant to search her house based on his claim that he had seen an informant buy drugs at Bullock’s front door.

On the day of Bullock’s outing with her granddaughter, Officers Castro and William Morrison knocked and then “rammed” the front door of her home and entered, both carrying shotguns. Morrison, who has a history of shooting between 80 to 90 dogs during previous drug raids, shot and killed Bullock’s dog while he and Castro searched for drugs. They found none, but seized two guns – Bullock’s uncle’s antique German Luger from World War II and a starter pistol for relay races –before they left. No charges were filed against Bullock.

When Bullock returned that evening, she found her house in disarray. Shots from the shotgun had “left holes in her bedroom door, dresser, and mattress as well as in her basement door and bar.” She saw “blood on her basement steps” but did not see her dog, whose body Castro and Morrison discarded at a landfill.  Neighbors described the scene to Bullock, which the police later confirmed. She tried to recover the Luger, but police said it had been discarded.

Bullock filed suit against Castro and Morrison and the City of Detroit in federal court, contending that the officers had committed improper misconduct both in searching her home and in shooting her dog. The lower court denied a request for qualified immunity before trial, and the police appealed.

For procedural reasons, all three judges on the Sixth Circuit panel agreed that they could not review the denial of qualified immunity with respect to shooting Bullock’s dog. But in a 2-1 decision, Trump judge Murphy reversed the district court and ruled that the police officers should get immunity concerning the search. He relied heavily on Castro’s affidavit and testimony that he had observed a confidential informant go to Bullock’s house and buy drugs at the front door.

George W. Bush nominee Helene White strongly dissented. She pointed out that Bullock’s amended complaint maintained that Castro’s affidavit was a “deliberate fabrication.” In particular, White noted that Castro’s search warrant was based on his observation of a “forty-five to fifty year old African-American male weighing approximately 170 pounds and at an approximate height of 5 feet 9 inches” selling drugs at Bullock’s home. But Bullock stated during her testimony that no such person had ever lived at her house, and that on the date of the alleged drug buy, she was the only one in the house.

White recounted that Bullock challenged other aspects of Castro’s “material misrepresentations,” including where he parked when he claimed to have witnessed the drug sale. Bullock said that from that vantage point, it would have been “impossible” for the officers to “see what, if anything, transpired at the front door.” Furthermore, White continued, Bullock had stopped working the month before the alleged buy and was “always at home” after that. Only her daughter had a key to her house, she said, and “nobody matching the description” in Castro’s affidavit had “visited her home in the days and weeks before the raid.” In fact, Bullock testified, “drugs were not sold in her home at any time.” The majority admitted that the search turned up no drugs or evidence of trafficking.

Based on the record and controlling precedent, White explained, the case should have been sent back to the district court to determine whether Castro “intended to mislead” the magistrate who issued the warrant. As a result of Murphy’s ruling, however, Bullock will not have that opportunity. Instead, the police officers who seized and damaged her property without cause are now legally protected against a lawsuit. This case is just one of many in which Trump judges have voted to shield police officers from legal accountability for their misconduct.