After William Rainsberger was arrested for murdering his 88-year-old mother, he spent two months in jail before he was released on bail. A year later, prosecutors dropped the case, citing a lack of evidence. That decision was not surprising, because Rainsberger's arrest was based on a probable cause affidavit written by an Indianapolis detective who misrepresented crucial facts and omitted exculpatory information.
The detective, Charles Benner, nevertheless argued that Rainsberger could not sue him under 42 USC 1983, a federal statute that allows people to seek damages when government officials violate their constitutional rights. In a 2019 opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit demolished Benner's argument that he was protected by qualified immunity, a court-invented doctrine that limits such claims to cases in which officials are accused of violating "clearly established" law.
That opinion is of special interest to critics of qualified immunity—which in many cases has protected police officers from liability for shocking behavior—because it was written by 7th Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who is reportedly the leading contender to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. In addition to supporting legislation that would limit or abolish qualified immunity, its critics hope the Supreme Court will reconsider the doctrine in an appropriate case. While the 7th Circuit's decision in Rainsberger v. Benner does not reveal how Barrett would vote in such a case, it does suggest she is not the sort of judge who bends over backward to protect police officers accused of outrageous misconduct.
Ruth Rainsberger, who suffered from dementia, had three children. William was the most attentive, looking in on her every day, buying groceries for her, and helping her with her finances. When he visited her on a Tuesday afternoon in November 2013, according to his account, he found the door to her apartment unlocked and found his mother lying face down on the floor in a pool of blood, her head and shoulders covered by a bloody blanket. He called 911 and reported that someone had "bashed [his mother's] head in."
Benner zeroed in on William Rainsberger as his prime suspect early on, speculating that he had killed his mother for his share of the $80,000 to $100,000 in savings he and his siblings would inherit. Two months after the murder, Benner wrote a probable cause affidavit that local prosecutors deemed inadequate. Five months later, he wrote another affidavit that was nearly identical but included some new details. This time prosecutors agreed there was enough evidence to charge Rainsberger with murder. But that evidence was either misleading or blatantly false.
Benner alleged that Rainsberger had called his brother from their mother's apartment nearly an hour before he called 911, suggesting a conspiracy to kill her for her money. But the time stamp for that cellphone call, which was an hour behind Indianapolis time because the call was routed through a tower in Chicago, actually showed that Rainsberger, consistent with his account, had talked to his brother after calling 911 to report the attack. "Benner chose to use the inaccurate and incriminating time in his affidavit," Barrett noted in an opinion joined by the two other judges on a 7th Circuit panel.
Benner also claimed that video surveillance from a Kroger supermarket where Rainsberger said he had stopped for an iced tea on the way to his mother's apartment showed him pulling out "a straight object from his person" (suggesting a murder weapon) and dropping it in a trash can. In fact, the video, which Barrett and her colleagues watched, showed no such thing. Instead, it looked like Rainsberger was throwing away an empty beverage can—again, consistent with his account. Barrett concluded that "a reasonable jury could find that Benner deliberately mischaracterized Rainsberger's behavior, which does not appear furtive on the video."
Benner averred that nothing had been taken from the apartment, which also was not true. While police found cash, a checkbook, and credit cards, a purse and prescription drugs were missing.
Benner depicted Rainsberger as unconcerned about his mother. He noted that Rainsberger waited outside for an ambulance and "left his mother unattended until the police arrived." But Rainsberger said he did that because his mother's apartment was hard to find, an explanation that Benner omitted. When police questioned Rainsberger and his brother on the day of the attack, Benner said, they never inquired about their mother's welfare. But as Barrett noted, "Benner knew…that Rainsberger was receiving updates by text from his sister Rebecca, who was at the hospital, and that Rainsberger had expressed concern about how he would get to the hospital from the police station."
Benner claimed Rainsberger and his siblings "stormed out" of the police station after the detective asked him and his brother to take a polygraph test. Benner did not mention that he had summoned the three of them to the police station under false pretenses the day after the attack, supposedly to discuss the findings of the autopsy on their mother, then suddenly accused Rainsberger and his brother of murdering her. Benner also falsely claimed he never heard from the family after that incident.
Between Benner's first and second affidavits, tests of Ruth's clothing and the blanket that was covering her head and shoulders found the DNA of two males. It did not match Rainsberger or his brother. Benner also left out that information.
"An officer violates the Fourth Amendment if he intentionally or recklessly includes false statements in a warrant application and those false statements were material to a finding of probable cause," Barrett noted. "An officer similarly violates the Fourth Amendment if he intentionally or recklessly withholds material information from a probable cause affidavit."
Barrett had little trouble concluding that police did not have probable cause to arrest Rainsberger without Benner's alleged lies. Without those, she said, the remaining evidence "supports nothing more than bare suspicion." She rejected "Benner's argument that he could have obtained a valid warrant if he had proceeded differently," saying that is "beside the point," since the question is not "whether an officer could have satisfied the Warrant Clause" but "whether he actually satisfied it."
Would it have been clear to a "reasonable officer" in this situation that his conduct was unlawful? Barrett thought it would.
Barrett was unimpressed by Benner's claim that "he is entitled to qualified immunity if the facts of the hypothetical affidavit [without the misrepresentations] demonstrate 'arguable probable cause'—in other words, if a competent officer faced with the facts in the hypothetical affidavit could reasonably if mistakenly believe that those facts were sufficient to establish probable cause." That argument "doesn't make sense," she noted, because qualified immunity depends on how a "reasonable officer" would have understood the law in the same situation, not in a counterfactual scenario.
"What Benner is really arguing, then, is that he is entitled to qualified immunity if a well‐trained officer could 'reasonably but mistakenly conclude' that it was
lawful to include an incriminating lie in an affidavit because the lie wasn't material to the probable cause determination," she wrote. "Of course, a competent officer would not even entertain the question whether it was lawful for him to lie in a probable cause affidavit. The hypothetical officer in the qualified immunity analysis is one who acts in good faith. That is what the standard of 'objective reasonableness' is designed to capture."
At this stage of the case, the allegations against Benner had already been enough to persuade a federal judge that the detective did not deserve qualified immunity. And unlike many plaintiffs in federal civil rights cases, Rainsberger did not have much difficulty locating precedents with closely similar facts. As Barrett noted, "The unlawfulness of using deliberately falsified allegations to establish probable cause could not be clearer." Still, Barrett's scathing dissection of Benner's arguments, combined with her opinions in other Fourth Amendment cases, is an encouraging sign for those of us who think judges defer to the police too much and too often.