After a neighbor called 911 and falsely reported that Dwain Barton had killed a cat, a local police officer charged through a screen door into Barton's house without a warrant and injuriously manhandled him while arresting him for animal cruelty, a charge that was eventually dismissed. When Barton sued the officer, Dean Vann, for violating his Fourth Amendment rights, a federal judge concluded that Vann was protected by "qualified immunity," which shields police from liability when their actions do not run afoul of "clearly established" law. Last Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit overturned that ruling, concluding that Barton should have an opportunity to prove his claims against Vann.
The 6th Circuit's decision shows there are limits to the doctrine of qualified immunity, which too often lets cops off the hook for outrageous conduct. But because the case did not involve a dispute about what counts as a "clearly established" right, the ruling does not go to the heart of the danger posed by that doctrine.
The circumstances that led to Vann's assault on Barton began on a Monday afternoon in November 2014, when his daughter was attacked by a stray cat as she was jumping on a trampoline in the backyard of the family's home in Lincoln Park, Michigan. Barton scared the cat away by firing a BB gun at one of the trampoline's legs. Then he noticed Jill Porter, a neighbor he blamed for attracting feral cats to the block by leaving out food scraps for them, standing in her own backyard three doors down. "Hey, Jill," Barton called out, "the next cat that I see in my yard will be a dead one."
Porter responded by calling police and claiming that Barton had told her, "Your gray cat just peed on my furniture, and he got shot in the head." That report led to a visit about 40 minutes later by Animal Control Officer Adam Manchester, who spoke to Barton through his screen door. While declining to come outside or provide identification, Barton denied shooting any cats and explained what had happened. In his written report, Manchester nevertheless asserted that Barton had "shot [a cat] in the head" with a BB gun, although he also said he had not seen any weapons or injured animals. Manchester radioed the Lincoln Park Police Department, claiming that Barton had "admitted to shooting animals."
Ten minutes later, eight police officers in four patrol cars arrived at Barton's home. According to Barton's complaint, they took "what looked like assault rifles" out of their trunks and "surrounded" the house. Manchester again asked for Barton's identification, which he handed through the door to his mother-in-law, who was on the front porch and passed it along to the cops. Moments later, Vann, who said he was afraid that Barton was "grabbing a gun," tore through the screen door and entered the house, where he saw Barton standing, unarmed, in the kitchen.
Barton's wife testified that Vann "threw [Barton] up against the counter like a linebacker." Barton said Vann "lifted [him] up with his elbows underneath [his] body and [his] arm and literally picked [him] up and slammed [him] up against [the] kitchen cupboards, at which point all of the other officers, like ants, followed in" and "surrounded" him. When Vann told Barton to put his hands behind his back so he could be handcuffed, Barton said he could not do that because of a shoulder injury. According to Barton, Vann then "grabbed both of [his] wrists and took them both behind [his] back," "shoved them both together," and "put the handcuffs on [him] as tight as he possibly could."
At that point, by Barton's account, Vann "shoved" him out the door, down the front steps, and into a patrol car, which took him to the police station, where he was strip-searched and detained for three hours before he was released on bail. Barton testified that Vann's rough handling aggravated his shoulder injury and left him with cuts on his wrists for several days.
Barton sued Vann under 42 USC 1983, which allows people to recover damages when a government official violates their constitutional rights under color of law. Barton argued that Vann illegally entered his home without a warrant, arrested him without probable cause, and used excessive force during the arrest. Vann claimed he was protected by qualified immunity, and U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh III granted his motion for summary judgment.
Steeh concluded that Vann was justified in entering the home based on "exigent circumstances," since "it was reasonable for Officer Vann to believe that Barton was armed, and that he was willing to use his weapon to harm the officers or others." Steeh also concluded that "Officer Vann had probable cause to believe that Barton had violated a local animal cruelty ordinance" and that "Barton fails to create a genuine issue of material fact on his excessive force claim" because he did not present sufficient evidence that Vann injured him during the arrest.
A unanimous 6th Circuit panel of three judges saw things differently. "Based on the facts alleged and the evidence produced, viewed in the light most favorable to Barton, a reasonable juror could find that Vann violated Barton's Fourth Amendment rights to freedom from warrantless entry into his home, use of excessive force, and arrest without probable cause," Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote. "These violations were of clearly established law." The court therefore rejected Vann's claim of qualified immunity.
"Without additional evidence of a threat against the police or bystanders, a report of an armed suspect inside his home does not justify warrantless entry," Gibbons observed. "Here, the only threat Barton made was that 'the next time [he saw] a cat in [his] yard attacking [his] children, it [would] be a dead one.' And when Manchester questioned Barton about the incident, prior to Vann's warantless entry, Barton told Manchester that he had shot at a trampoline pole with a BB gun, not the marauding cat. Vann never heard Barton threaten the officers or any neighbors. Vann never observed Barton with a weapon. Vann never suspected that someone inside the house was in peril. And Vann did not see any evidence of an injured animal."
Regarding the arrest, "a phone call reporting criminal activity, without any corroborating information, does not provide probable cause for an arrest," the 6th Circuit said. "Information from a caller [who] is not an eyewitness to the events lacks indicia of trustworthiness and reliability….Based on the information Vann had at the time, including the exculpatory statement offered by Barton, no reasonable officer would have concluded that there was probable cause for arrest."
As for the claim of excessive force, "Barton has presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Vann's use of force was reasonable," Gibbons wrote. "It would be clear to a reasonable officer that the amount of force used by Vann against Barton was unlawful. First, Barton was being arrested for animal cruelty, not a crime that would justify the amount of force used here. It was contested as to whether Barton shot the cat, and even if he did, whether he would have been justified in doing so given the attack on his daughter. There was no threat to human safety from Barton's actions. Second, Barton did not pose an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others….Third, the facts do not suggest that Barton was resisting arrest or attempting to flee."
After Barton was handcuffed, he claimed, Vann "tossed [him] down" the steps of his front porch toward Manchester. "Vann was on notice that his conduct was a violation of Barton's constitutional right to be free from excessive use of force," Gibbons wrote, "as it was obvious that Vann could not shove a handcuffed detainee off a front porch about three feet off the ground when there was no threat to the safety of the officers or others."
Many qualified immunity decisions involve disputes about whether a right was clearly established. As Fifth Circuit Judge Don Willett has observed, "qualified immunity smacks of unqualified impunity, letting public officials duck consequences for bad behavior—no matter how palpably unreasonable—as long as they were the first to behave badly." Worse, courts often rule that a right allegedly violated by police was not clearly established without deciding whether their actions were unconstitutional. That approach creates a "Catch-22," Willett said, because "plaintiffs must produce precedent even as fewer courts are producing precedent" and "important constitutional questions go unanswered precisely because those questions are yet unanswered."
In this case, by contrast, the disagreement between Steeh and the 7th Circuit hinged on the proper application of well-established law to the facts of the incident. Even if Vann had not claimed qualified immunity, Steeh might still have held that he was entitled to summary judgment under Rule 56 because Barton's allegations were insufficient as a matter of law.
If Barton ultimately persuades a jury that Vann violated his rights (or if the case is settled out of court), Vann almost certainly will not be personally on the hook for any payout. After investigating the practices of 81 law enforcement agencies, UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz found that "police officers are virtually always indemnified" in civil rights cases. During the period she studied, "governments paid approximately 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement."