On May 3, 1985, respondent James V. Bryant delivered two photocopies of a handwritten letter to two administrative
A campus police sergeant telephoned the Secret Service, and agent Brian Hunter responded to the call. After reading the letter, agent Hunter interviewed university employees. One identified James Bryant as the man who had delivered the letter and reported that Bryant had "told her `[h]e should have been assassinated in Bonn.' " Another employee said that the man who delivered the letter made statements about "`bloody coups' " and "`assassination,' " and said something about "`across the throat' " while moving his hand horizontally across his throat to simulate a cutting action. Id., at 718-719.
Hunter and another Secret Service agent, Jeffrey Jordan, then visited a local address that appeared on the letter. Bryant came to the door and gave the agents permission to enter. He admitted writing and delivering the letter, but refused to identify "Mr. Image" and answered questions about "Mr. Image" in a rambling fashion. Bryant gave Hunter permission to search the apartment, and the agent found the original of the letter. While the search was underway, Jordan continued questioning Bryant, who refused to answer questions about his feelings toward the President or to state whether he intended to harm the President. Id., at 719.
Bryant subsequently sued agents Hunter and Jordan, the United States Department of the Treasury, and the Director of the Secret Service, seeking recovery under the Federal Tort Claims Act and alleging that the agents had violated his rights under the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments. See Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). The District Court dismissed all defendants other than agents Hunter and Jordan and all causes of action other than Bryant's Fourth Amendment claims for arrest without probable cause and without a warrant. The court denied the agents' motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds.
On appeal, a Ninth Circuit panel held that the agents were entitled to qualified immunity for arresting Bryant without a warrant because, at that time, the warrant requirement was not clearly established for situations in which the arrested had consented to the agents' entry into a residence. 903 F. 2d, at 723-724.
However, the panel divided on the question whether the agents were entitled to immunity on the claim that they had
Our cases establish that qualified immunity shields agents Hunter and Jordan from suit for damages if "a reasonable officer could have believed [Bryant's arrest] to be lawful, in light of clearly established law and the information the [arresting] officers possessed." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 641 (1987). Even law enforcement officials who "reasonably but mistakenly conclude that probable cause is present" are entitled to immunity. Ibid. Moreover, because "[t]he entitlement is an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability," Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985), we repeatedly have stressed the importance of resolving immunity questions at the earliest possible stage in litigation. See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982); Davis v. Scherer, 468 U.S. 183, 195 (1984); Mitchell, supra, at 526; Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986); Anderson, supra, at 646, n. 6.
The decision of the Ninth Circuit ignores the import of these decisions. The Court of Appeals' confusion is evident
Under settled law, Secret Service Agents Hunter and Jordan are entitled to immunity if a reasonable officer could have believed that probable cause existed to arrest Bryant. Probable cause existed if "at the moment the arrest was made . . . the facts and circumstances within their knowledge and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information were sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing" that Bryant had violated 18 U. S. C. § 871. Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91 (1964).
When Agents Hunter and Jordan arrested Bryant, they possessed trustworthy information that Bryant had written a letter containing references to an assassination scheme directed against the President, that Bryant was cognizant of the President's whereabouts, that Bryant had made an oral statement that "`[h]e should have been assassinated in Bonn,' " 903 F. 2d, at 719, and that Bryant refused to answer questions about whether he intended to harm the President. On the basis of this information, a Magistrate ordered Bryant to be held without bond.
These undisputed facts establish that the Secret Service agents are entitled to qualified immunity. Even if we assumed, arguendo, that they (and the magistrate) erred in concluding that probable cause existed to arrest Bryant, the
The qualified immunity standard "gives ample room for mistaken judgments" by protecting "all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Malley, supra, at 343, 341. This accommodation for reasonable error exists because "officials should not err always on the side of caution" because they fear being sued. Davis, supra, at 196. Our national experience has taught that this principle is nowhere more important than when the specter of Presidential assassination is raised.
The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
Justice Thomas took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
Justice Scalia, concurring in the judgment.
In my view the Ninth Circuit's opinion purported to apply the standard for summary judgment that today's opinion demands. Its error was in finding, on the facts before it, that the standard was not met. Since I think it worthwhile to establish that this Court will not let such a mistake stand with respect to those who guard the life of the President, I concur in the summary reversal.
Justice Stevens, dissenting.
The question in this case is not whether a reasonable officer could have believed that respondent posed a threat to the life of the President. Those "who guard the life of the President," ante this page (Scalia, J., concurring in judgment), properly rely on the slightest bits of evidence — nothing
The evidence on which the officers relied to support their conclusion that probable cause existed is summarized in two affidavits which they filed in support of their motion for summary judgment. That evidence includes three relevant components: (1) a rambling, confusing letter written by respondent contained statements indicating that a "Mr Image" intended to assassinate the President while he was in Germany; (2) the officers "believed that the use of the term Mr. Image may have been a pseudonym for [respondent] Bryant and that Bryant was writing in the third person," App. to Pet. for Cert. 48a, 54a; and (3) when respondent delivered a copy of the letter to Veronica Tincher in the budget office of the University of Southern California, he "said something about `across the throat,' while simultaneously moving his hand horizontally across his throat to simulate a cutting action," id., at 43a.
The affidavits explained that in addition to the above facts, the affiants were "concerned that Bryant might pose a threat to the President's well-being." Id., at 48a, 54a. It is also noteworthy that when the officers visited Bryant in his apartment, he allowed them to enter and voluntarily consented to a search for weapons in plain view, and then to a second search of the entire residence. That search resulted in nothing more than the discovery of the original of the letter.
Bryant's letter advances a conspiracy theory accusing the National Council of Churches of spreading communism and
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Like Justice Scalia, I am satisfied that the Court of Appeals applied the correct legal standard when it affirmed the District Court's refusal to grant summary judgment in favor of petitioners. When the Court of Appeals opinion is read in its entirety, that conclusion is inescapable. Unlike Justice Scalia, however, I am also satisfied that when the proper legal standards are applied to this record, with the evidence examined in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, petitioners have not yet established that a reasonable officer could have concluded that he had sufficient evidence to support a finding of probable cause at the time of respondent's arrest. I also think it unwise for this Court, on the basis of its de novo review of a question of fact, to reject a determination on which both the District Court and the Court of Appeals agreed.
Accordingly, I respectfully dissent.
Justice Kennedy, dissenting.
Petitioners in this case are agents of the Secret Service. Among the questions presented are the proper interpretation of 18 U. S. C. § 871(a), which prohibits mail threats against the President, and the proper standard for summary
For the reasons stated in today's per curiam opinion and in the dissent by Judge Trott in the Court of Appeals, I must agree that the holding of the Court of Appeals is open to serious question. The majority opinion of that court seems not to have considered all of the facts on which the agents relied, in particular the statements made by Bryant and his responses (or nonresponses) to the agents' questions. This calls in question its determination that qualified immunity has not been established on summary judgment.
To reverse in this case, however, the Court considers an issue on which some doubt has been expressed, which is whether the Court of Appeals applied the correct legal standard to resolve the qualified immunity issue on summary judgment. Two Members of the Court disagree with the statement in the per curiam opinion that the Court of Appeals misstated the law. See ante, at 227; ante, at 229 (Scalia, J., concurring in judgment); ante, at 234 (Stevens, J., dissenting). Given this disagreement, as well as the presidential weight that later courts will accord to all of the questions presented in the case and addressed here in express terms or by clear implication, the case does not lend itself to summary disposition. I would set the case for full briefing and oral argument.
For these reasons, I dissent from the judgment of summary reversal in this case.
"Whoever knowingly and willfully deposits for conveyance in the mail or for a delivery from any post office or by any letter carrier any letter, paper, writing, print, missive, or document containing any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States, the President-elect, the Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President of the United States, or the Vice President-elect, or knowingly and willfully otherwise makes any such threat against the President, President-elect, Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President, or Vice President-elect, shall be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both."