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Qualified Immunity

Interesting Fifth Circuit Denial of Qualified Immunity to Police Officers


From Hughes v. Few, decided yesterday by Judge Andrew Oldham, joined by Judges E. Grady Jolly and Kurt Engelhardt; for the details, read the opinion itself:

For those who worry that qualified immunity can be invoked under absurd circumstances: Buckle up.

Austin Thompson Hughes is a Good Samaritan. After 2:30 a.m., Hughes called 911 to report a pickup truck swerving violently across a four-lane highway in Houston. While Hughes was on the phone with emergency dispatchers, the drunk driver crashed. Still on the phone with 911, Hughes pulled behind the drunk driver and effectuated a citizen's arrest in accordance with Texas law. But when police officers arrived at the scene, they let the drunk driver go and then arrested Good Samaritan Hughes. (Seriously.) Piling insanity on irrationality, the officers then charged Hughes with a felony for impersonating a peace officer. Hughes spent thousands of dollars defending against the frivolous criminal charges before the City of Houston dropped them. Then Hughes brought this § 1983 suit against the two officers who victimized him. The district court denied qualified immunity. We affirm. (Obviously.) …

In the context of split-second excessive force cases, the Supreme Court has "repeatedly told courts not to define clearly established law at too high a level of generality." That is so because in the typical excessive-force case, officers must make life-or-death split-second decisions, often at night or in the chaos of a deadly chase or both. This case does not involve excessive force, or split-second decisions, or the chaos of a chase. Rather, it involves a simple, clearly established rule that all officers should know at all times under Franks and Winfrey: Do not lie….

All told, Garcia's affidavit made at least eight material misstatements or omissions. Any reasonable officer would have known, based on the evidence available, that the affidavit contained these errors. Hughes therefore sufficiently pleaded Garcia violated his clearly established Fourth Amendment rights by producing and submitting the affidavit….

The only evidence suggesting Hughes ever impersonated a law enforcement officer—thus the only evidence that could possibly have established probable cause—came from the drunk driver's statement. As discussed above, the drunk driver reportedly told Officers Few and Garcia that Hughes had claimed to be a police officer. But even the officers' counsel admitted that this assertion came in the midst of the drunk driver's "crazy statement[s]." Given the vast inconsistencies (indeed, impossibilities) reflected in both versions of the drunk driver's statement, the driver's obvious intoxication, and the evidence supporting Hughes's account, no reasonable officer could have suspected Hughes committed a felony. Therefore, a corrected warrant affidavit could not have established probable cause to arrest and prosecute Hughes….

Thanks to Jay Horowitz for the pointer.