©2010 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (LLRMI.COM)  Lockett v. City of New Orleans et al., No. 09-30712, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 9261 (5th Cir. Decided May 5, 2010)

In July of 2008, Lockett, a Southern University of New Orleans (SUNO) student was driving to class.  Two guardsmen with the National Guard Task Force in effect to assist the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) after Hurricane Katrina, observed Lockett and stopped him for speeding.  He stopped at the entrance to the school which also shared an entrance with the local FBI office.  When Lockett told the guardsmen that he was going to class, one responded, apparently believing Lockett was in a class for the FBI, that he would speak to the instructor.  Lockett then clarified that he was a student at SUNO.  The guardsmen allegedly responded, “You need to be at SUNO.”  Lockett was offended by the comment and asked why he would say such a thing.  At this point, one of the guardsmen ordered Lockett from the car, asked for his driver’s license and insurance and frisked him.

Lockett provided his driver’s license, but his proof of insurance was expired.  He attempted unsuccessfully to contact his insurance company to prove his insurance was valid.  Lockett also called 911, complained that the guardsmen were making racial slurs and requested an NOPD officer.  Lockett also called his wife and who came to the scene.

At this point, the other guardsman frisked Lockett.  The guardsmen also called their supervisor who came to the scene.  The supervisor frisked Lockett, handcuffed him and placed him in a military police vehicle.  A window was rolled down for Lockett due to the heat.  Later, when NOPD arrived, they conferred with the military police and decided that Lockett would be arrested for reckless driving under Louisiana law.  One of the NOPD officers took custody of Lockett, switched handcuffs and took him to jail.

Lockett was released from jail after about three hours, and he filed a complaint with the National Guard, alleging that his wrists were hurt by the handcuffs.  Ultimately, he pleaded guilty to a non-moving violation, and the other charges were dismissed.

Lockett subsequently filed suit against the involved parties, in their official and individual capacities, and their respective government entities.  The district court granted the summary judgment and qualified immunity to the defendants and Lockett appealed.

First, Lockett alleges that his warrantless arrest for reckless driving violated the Fourth Amendment because the officers later admitted that they did not believe that careless driving was an “arrestable offense.”  Further, Lockett argued that “probable cause for a traffic stop is separate and distinct from the probable cause necessary to affect an arrest when the initial probable cause for the traffic stop is insufficient for the arrest.” [i] However, the Fifth Circuit held

If an officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has committed even a very minor criminal offense in his presence, he may, without violating the Fourth Amendment, arrest the offender… In Atwater, the very minor criminal offense was the plaintiff’s failure to fasten a seatbelt. Significantly, in its opinion, the Supreme Court rejected Atwater’s contention that “it would not be reasonable to arrest a driver for speeding unless the speeding rose to the level of reckless driving.” Therefore, in the instant case, because the defendants had probable cause to believe that Lockett had been driving in violation of the speed limit, the arrest did not violate a clearly established constitutional right. [ii]  [internal citations omitted]

Lockett also claimed that his arrest was motivated by the officer’s conspiracy to violate his constitutional rights because he complained that the officers were harassing him because of his race.  However, the Fifth Circuit has previously held that

[that] subjective intent, motive, or even outright animus are irrelevant in a determination of qualified immunity based on arguable probable cause to arrest, just as an officer’s good intent is irrelevant when he contravenes settled law. [iii]

Thus, all defendants were properly awarded qualified immunity regarding the unlawful warrantless arrest claim.
Second, Lockett alleged the guardsmen used excessive when they handcuffed him too tightly and frisked him multiple times.  The Fifth Circuit has previously held that

to establish an excessive force claim, the plaintiff must show (1) an injury (2) which resulted directly and only from the use of force that was excessive to the need and (3) the force used was objectively unreasonable. [iv]

Lockett alleged that the handcuffs were originally placed on him by the military police supervisor too tightly such that they caused him pain.  At deposition, he admitted that he did not complain on the scene and did not mention the pain to jail personnel on the medical intake screening form.  Only after he was released from jail did he complain to a major in the National Guard that the handcuffs had been too tight.  He also admitted that he was not under a doctor’s care for any particular wrist injury, although he did go one time to the doctor.  The Fifth Circuit held

Lockett’s claim boils down to an allegation that the handcuffs were too tight. Such a claim, without more, does not constitute excessive force: This court finds that handcuffing too tightly, without more, does not amount to excessive force. [v] [internal quotations omitted]

Regarding the excessive force allegation, Lockett alleged that his multiple searches (frisks) amounted to excessive force.  At the outset, the court noted that Lockett has not alleged any injury from the searches.  In fact, the court stated that his deposition testimony undermines this allegation because he described the searches as “standard” and “appropriate.”  Further, he also stated in his deposition that the handcuffs were adjusted for him and he was allowed to stretch twice.
Thus, the court held

In light of the above testimony and the lack of a “more than de minimis injury,” we are persuaded that Lockett has failed to make a claim of excessive use of force with respect to the pat downs. Thus, the defendants were properly accorded qualified immunity with respect to the claim of excessive use of force. [vi]

Third, Lockett argues that the search and seizure of his person were unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. He first argues that the length of his initial detention was unreasonable as it lasted approximately one hour.  However, the court took note that part of the reason for the length of the detention was that Lockett was allowed to make several phone calls.  First, he was allowed to call his insurance company regarding his proof of insurance.  Next, he was allowed to call his wife to ask her to come to the scene.  Lastly, he called 911 and requested NOPD officers because of the way he felt he was being treated.  Thus, the court held that the one hour initial detention prior to his arrest was arrest was not unreasonable.

Also part of the unreasonable search and seizure allegation was Lockett’s argument that his multiple searches (frisks) were unreasonable (not to be confused with his failed excessive force claim for the same searches) because the officers lacked reasonable suspicion that he was armed and dangerous.  The court declined to conclude whether or not the searches violated the Fourth Amendment and Terry v. Ohio and instead simply held that that the law in this area in the Fifth Circuit was not clearly established; therefore, the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.

Here, as an author’s note, it is important to remember that frisks, under Terry v. Ohio are permissible when the officer, who has detained a person based upon reasonable suspicion, has a reasonable belief that the suspect is armed and dangerous. [vii]  Officers are not supposed to arbitrarily frisk a person “for officer safety” without a reasonable belief that the person is armed and dangerous.

The court also found it relevant to search issue to note that

in the case of a lawful custodial arrest, a full search of the person is not only an exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment, but is also a ‘reasonable’ search under that Amendment. [viii]

Therefore, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity.

Fourth, Lockett alleges that the defendants violated two federal statutes, particularly 42 U.S.C. §§ 1985 and 1986, that prohibit conspiracies to deprive any person of equal protection under the law.

The Fifth Circuit stated

To state a claim under § 1985(3), a plaintiff must allege facts demonstrating (1) a conspiracy; (2) for the purpose of depriving a person of the equal protection of the laws; and (3) an act in furtherance of the conspiracy; (4) which causes injury to a person or a deprivation of any right or privilege of a citizen of the United States. Additionally, the conspiracy must also have a racially based animus. [ix]

The court then held that the statement made by one of the guardsmen (“You need to go to SUNO.”) is insufficient to demonstrate the racial animus needed to create an issue under the statute.  This was based on the fact that the guardsmen and officer had a constitutionally valid reason to stop and arrest Lockett.  Further, his detention and searches did not violate clearly established law.  Therefore, the court stated

We conclude that he has not demonstrated facts sufficient to demonstrate a conspiracy to deprive him of equal protection and the required act in furtherance of the conspiracy that caused injury or deprivation of any right. We therefore affirm the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants with respect to Lockett’s § 1985(3) claim. [x]

The court then addressed the allegation of a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1986 which states

“[e]very person who, having knowledge that any of the wrongs conspired to be done, and mentioned in section 1985 . . . are about to be committed, and having power to prevent or aid . . . neglects or refuses so to do . . . shall be liable to the party injured. [xi]

The court held that since Lockett failed to demonstrate a claim under § 1985, the claim under § 1986 must fail.  Additionally, although not discussed in this article, the state law claims also failed.

Thus, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity and the judgment of the district court was affirmed.


NOTE: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal advisor regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.


Involuntary Transport to Station for Identification (Legal Question, Referencing Warrantless Arrest, Atwater)

Supreme Court Decides Incident to Arrest –Vehicle Case (Referencing incident to arrest, Atwater)

Ashcroft v. Iqbal… Supervisory Liability (Supreme Court Case, Referencing discrimination)


[i] Lockett v. City of New Orleans et al., No. 09-30712, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 9261 (5th Cir. Decided May 5, 2010)

[ii] Id. at 10-11 (quoting Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318, 349-350 (2001))

[iii] Id. at 11 (quoting Mendenhall v. Riser, 213 F.3d 226, 231 (5th Cir. 2000))

[iv] Id. at 12 (quoting Glenn v. City of Tyler, 242 F.3d 307, 314 (5th Cir. 2001))

[v] Id. at 13 (quoting Glenn, 242 F.3d at 314)

[vi] Id. at 15

[vii] 392 U.S. 1 (1968)

[viii] Lockett, No. 09-30712 at 19 (quoting United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 235 (1973))

[ix] Id. at 20

[x] Id. at 22-23

[xi] Id. at 23


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