Mere ‘feeling’ that detective framed African-American officer on drug charges can’t defeat qualified immunity
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Monday, May 14, 2018

Mere ‘feeling’ that detective framed African-American officer on drug charges can’t defeat qualified immunity

By Robert Margolis, J.D.

An African-American patrol officer’s “feeling” that a detective set up a phony sting operation to frame him on drug charges to get him off the police force due to the detective’s racial animus could not overcome the detective’s qualified immunity defense to Section 1983 and state law “outrage” claims, the Eighth Circuit held. It reversed the district court’s denial of the detective’s summary judgment motion and remanded with instructions to enter summary judgment for the detective and dismiss the claims against him (Williams v. Mannis, May 10, 2018, Erickson, R.).

The set up? The patrol officer, who worked for the Stuttgart, Arkansas, Police Department, was summoned to the county prosecutor’s office and told there was “audio and video” evidence that he had illegally purchased Xanax from a confidential informant. Yet the prosecutor also told him that because the police chief “had a lot on his plate,” the charges would be dropped if the patrol officer resigned from his job, after which “he would be free to go work somewhere else.” The patrol officer chose not to resign, however, was charged with the crime of illegally purchasing Xanax, and was fired by the police department. At trial, the patrol officer was acquitted of all charges.

Racial animus suspected. The patrol officer then sued several parties—including the city, county, three law enforcement agencies, and several individual law enforcement officers who investigated him—claiming they conspired to frame him on knowingly false drug charges, motivated by racial animus because he was the only African-American patrol officer employed by the Stuttgart Police Department. The detective was one of the defendants sued.

Only detective remains as defendant. After several defendants were dismissed out of the case for various reasons, the detective and several other defendants moved for summary judgment, and the district court granted the motion as to all defendants except for the detective. He had argued theories of qualified immunity and immunity under an Arkansas statute, but the district court permitted the claim against the detective to proceed under Section 1983 for deliberate conduct that shocks the conscience and a state law claim for outrage. The detective filed an interlocutory appeal to challenge the denial of his qualified immunity defense, and the Eighth Circuit reversed.

Qualified immunity. As the appeals court described the governing legal principal, summary judgment on a qualified immunity defense is proper where no reasonable fact finder looking at the facts viewed most favorably to the plaintiff could conclude that the defendant’s conduct “violated a clearly established constitutional right.” A right is “clearly established” where a reasonable public official would understand that his conduct violates that right, and as the court noted, pursuing the conviction of an innocent person could be the type of constitutional violation that falls outside of immunity. Where a defendant asserts a qualified immunity defense, the plaintiff bears the burden of producing evidence that raises a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defendant violated a clearly established right. Here, because the patrol officer did not meet his evidentiary burden, the district court erred in rejecting the qualified immunity defense.

Appeals court revisits the facts. Although the district court held that the patrol officer presented sufficient evidence to support the claim that the detective “concocted” a drug-buy scheme to set up the patrol officer on false charges, the Eighth Circuit found the facts supported a different conclusion. The detective’s housekeeper, also a confidential informant looking to help herself out with pending drug charges (but who had previously been reliable as an informant), volunteered to the detective that she knew the patrol officer had previously been involved with illegal drugs and said she was willing to see if he would illegally purchase drugs from her.

The housekeeper’s motives were clear—she was facing two felony drug charges. The detective’s motives, however, were disputed, but he helped the informant set up two meetings between her and the patrol officer where she allegedly sold him Xanax. While she possessed Xanax before each meeting and searches after each meeting turned up no Xanax, police did not stop or search the patrol officer to verify that he took possession of the drugs. The patrol officer was arrested after rejecting the offer to quit his job; neither felony charge survived a motion for judgment of acquittal, and he was acquitted on the remaining misdemeanor charge after the jury deliberated 44 minutes. He was later rehired by the police department; several employees told him he should “watch his back” because another officer was trying to set him up again.

Speculation not enough. When asked at his deposition what evidence he had of being set up by the detective and other officers, he admitted all he had was speculation, “just a feeling” that the detective had conspired against him. This, the appeals court held, was not enough to defeat qualified immunity. The patrol officer’s mere “suspicions” that the detective was motivated by racial animus could not support a constitutional claim. And while the detective emphasized the fact of his acquittal, the court pointed to the fact that before the patrol officer could be tried, a judge had to find probable cause to issue an arrest warrant.

State law immunity. The court also reversed the denial of summary judgment on the state law “outrage” claim, finding that an Arkansas immunity statute applied for the same reasons as federal qualified immunity.

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