EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Eighth Circuit Grants Qualified Immunity to Officer Who Handcuffed & Searched Man Who Asked For His Name After He Refused to Arrest Man Who Broke Into His Truck

The qualified immunity doctrine insulates governmental agents from liability for unconstitutional acts as long “as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”  The primary purpose of the doctrine “is to protect them ‘from undue interference with their duties and from potentially disabling threats of liability.’” So, should there be qualified immunity in a case with these facts?

On July 7, 2017, [Jeffery] Just's truck ran out of gas near a St. Louis gas station, and, leaving his truck unattended, Just walked to the gas station to retrieve gasoline. When he returned, he found John Doe in his truck, rifling through its console. John Doe told Just that he entered the truck believing it to be his brother's and, realizing that it was not, exited the truck. Nevertheless, Just called 911 and reported this incident. John Doe left the scene. The Officers arrived approximately 30 to 45 minutes later. About the same time, a third party arrived, who called John Doe back to the scene. The third party and John Doe relayed their version of events to the Officers, explaining that John Doe thought Just's truck was his brother's and that Just had chased him while brandishing a knife. The Officers verified that his brother's truck had been recently impounded. Just denied having a knife or chasing John Doe.
The Officers said that Just and John Doe could leave. John Doe left. Just requested the Officers’ names, explaining that he was upset they did not arrest John Doe. As Just was taking Officer Kuykendall's name, Officer Kuykendall handcuffed Just and placed him in the squad car. The Officers then conducted a pat down search of Just, looking for the knife that he allegedly brandished. They did not find a knife on Just's person, and they did not search Just's truck. The Officers then asked John Doe to return to the scene and placed him in handcuffs, too. A St. Louis police sergeant arrived at the scene, and after some discussion, the Officers released Just and John Doe. No charges were lodged against either Just or John Doe.

These were the facts in Just v. City of St. Louis, Missouri, 2021 WL 3411783 (8th Cir. 2021). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Just thereafter brought a Fourth Amendment false arrest claim and a First Amendment retaliation claim against the Officers. The Officers thereafter brought a motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds, and the district court denied the motion. The Eighth Circuit reversed and granted the motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds, ruling as follows:

John Doe's and the third party's reports were sufficient to have provided probable cause to arrest Just for assault in the fourth degree under Missouri law. The facts that Just directs us to (i.e., that he called 911 and that John Doe was not credible) do not diminish the Officers’ probable cause to believe, at the time of Just's arrest, that he had committed a crime....Further, the fact that no formal charges were initiated against Just does not retroactively diminish the reasonableness of the Officers’ belief....In sum, the disputed facts cited by Just or by the district court are not capable of affecting the outcome of this suit and thus are not material questions of fact capable of defeating summary judgment....Furthermore, even if the Officers were mistaken that probable cause existed, that mistake was “objectively reasonable” and arguable probable cause exists, entitling them to qualified immunity....Therefore, because we find as a matter of law that probable cause, or at least arguable probable cause, existed...and because we are permitted to resolve this qualified immunity analysis on either prong,...we conclude that the Officers were entitled to qualified immunity. The district court thus erred in denying the motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.

We also find that the Officers were entitled to qualified immunity on Just's First Amendment retaliation claim. “To prove a constitutional violation, [Just] must show that he was arrested in retaliation for a protected speech activity.”...Such a showing consists of four elements: that the plaintiff engaged in protected activity, that the officer(s) “took adverse action...that would chill a person of ordinary firmness from continuing in the [protected] activity,” that the adverse action was motivated by the plaintiff's protected activity, and that the officer(s) lacked probable cause or arguable probable cause....Like a Fourth Amendment claim for a wrongful arrest, a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim is defeated by a showing of probable cause (or arguable probable cause)....Because we have already concluded that the Officers had probable cause, or at least arguable probable cause, to arrest Just and because such a finding defeats a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim,....we find that qualified immunity was also appropriate on Just's First Amendment claim and the district court erred by denying that immunity.




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