A Search and Seizure Opinion (Relevant to Land Use) So Bad It's Terrifying - and Ethical Limits Prevent Me From Saying What I Really Think
This opinion from the 4th DCA, in Vaughn v. Dep't of Agriculture et al, tests my self-control. The 4th upheld a trial court's dismissal of s.1983 damage claims against individual inspectors of the Dep't of Agriculture and a Broward County Deputy Sheriff. The inspectors invaded Vaughn's property without a warrant and had him arrested for demanding one. They tore down sections of Vaughn's fence and gate, cut down and ground his citrus trees, and had him arrested for objecting to this. The Deputy handcuffed and arrested Vaughn for insisting that the inspectors needed a warrant to enter his property.
The 4th, INCREDIBLY, (see Judge Farmer's dissent, which got the law right) found the inspectors and deputy entitled to immunity on the basis that the law requiring a warrant to engage in these activities wasn't sufficiently clear to justify maintaining suits against the individuals. The majority basically takes the position that until a specific law, regulation or practice has been specifically found to violate the Fourth Amendment (or presumably any other constitutional right), you can't hold an executive actor personally responsible for violating that right. This is a gross distortion of the underlying doctrine from Harlow v. Fitzgerald, and an even worse interpretation of the relevant 4th Amendment rulings.
Basically, this decision completely destroys any integrity to the Fourth Amendment. Sure, any evidence that the officers got through this invasion would be excluded from a criminal proceeding - creating an institutional incentive not to invade and abuse Fourth Amendment rights. Sure the Department and Sheriff's office are still on the line. But without individual liability and responsibilty, there's no reason for the actual perpetrators of what the court agreed was a constitutional violation to avoid those violations. In other words, watch out - cops, code enforcment officers, anyone with the "color" of authority has free reign to break down your fence, arrest you, and generally abuse you, and you have no action against them personally. Where's the disincentive for these folks to abuse you?
It's also telling that in some 4th amendment cases, the courts have limited the scope of the exclusionary rule, in part based on arguments that personal liability for abuses would provide a deterrant to the bad conduct without the social penalty of allowing a criminal to go free. So the constitution now gets squeeezed from both sides.
The "the law said I could" argument didn't fly at Nuremburg for German sargents who abused the human rights of Jews and others, but apparently it's good enough for American agriculture inspectors and deputies. While invading someone's property and cutting their trees down doesn't in any way rise to the same level of human rights abuse that the Holocaust represents, if these administrative and law enforcement officers don't respect the 4th Amendment, if there isn't a personal sense of limitation and respect for individidual rights on the parts of these individuals, then the constitution is dead.
Read the dissent to get the full flavor of the attitude, behavior and tactics of the "public servants" involved and choose your own adjectives to describe them. Taste and ethics constrain me, because if I described the behavior as I'd like, I'd also end up noting the way that the court has permitted and perhaps even facilitated such behavior, and that might cross the line.
Clearly, in search and siezure as in other violations of our constitutional rights by public officials, we cannot rely on the federal civil rights laws (and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights) to provide adequate protection.
What to do? We need a Florida version of section 1983 that holds state and local agencies and actors liable for violations of the Florida constitution, with sections that make it clear that it is to be interpreted liberally to protect the rights of citizens - not like the cramped readings of s.1983 and the core rights that the federal courts have put on section 1983, basically to avoid hearing the cases.