On April 11, 2019, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Waters v. Madson[i], in which the court examined whether officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they detained a man and his wife at a lumberyard when the man failed to allow store employees to check his trunk pursuant to a posted store policy. The relevant facts of Waters, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
On March 27, 2016, Appellants visited a Menards store in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, to exchange a saw Mr. Waters had previously purchased for a new saw he had purchased online. Mr. Waters video-recorded their visit through a sunglass camera clipped to his shirt. (He later posted excerpts of this video on his YouTube channel. See Dist. Ct. Dkt. 16-1.) An employee inside the store directed Appellants to the online pickup location inside the Menards lumberyard. Mr. Waters drove into the lumberyard with Mrs. Waters in the passenger seat. While it is undisputed that Menards had posted signs at the yard’s entrance and exit stating that vehicles leaving the lumberyard were subject to inspection, Appellants claim they did not see any such signs upon entry.
After Appellants arrived in the lumberyard, a Menards employee loaded the saw into their vehicle’s trunk. Appellants then proceeded to the lumberyard exit, where a Menards employee requested that they open their vehicle’s trunk for inspection as per the signs. Mr. Waters refused, stating that he had no legal obligation to do so. When the gate employee refused to open the exit gate and called for a manager, Mr. Waters called the police.
Coon Rapids police officers Alyssa Smith and Emily Kirchner arrived in response to Mr. Waters’s call. After being told by the Menards manager that posted store policy required Menards to verify Mr. Waters’s purchase before Appellants could leave the lumberyard and that Mr. Waters believed he was being unlawfully detained, Officer Smith approached Appellants’ vehicle and told Mr. Waters to allow the Menards employees to verify his purchase. When Mr. Waters refused, Officer Smith asked Mr. Waters for identification, which he refused to provide, stating that he was “not currently driving” and did not have to “provide ID until there [was] a reasonable suspicion of a crime.” Officer Smith informed Mr. Waters that she had reasonable suspicion he had committed a crime because he would not open the trunk.
Officer Smith then asked Mr. Waters to step out of his vehicle, and Officer Kirchner explained that, because Mr. Waters was noncompliant with Menards policy, the officers reasonably suspected he had something in his vehicle’s trunk that he was not supposed to have. The officers again told Mr. Waters to step out of his vehicle. Mr. Waters, still video-recording, stated, “I’m being ordered out of my vehicle. I’m being placed under arrest,” to which Officer Smith calmly responded, “I didn’t say you were under arrest; I said you need to step out of the vehicle.” When Mr. Waters asked if he was free to go, Officer Smith stated, “You are not free to go.” Mr. Waters replied, “Then I’m being detained. Under what reasonable suspicion of what crime?” The officers again told Mr. Waters to get out of his car and he repeated his question, then repeatedly asked the officers for their names and badge numbers. Officer Kirchner told Mr. Waters yet again to step out of his car and, when he failed to comply, told him he could go to jail.
Mr. Waters eventually complied with orders to step out of his car. Officer Kirchner searched him for weapons and told him that the officers had “reasonable suspicion that [he] ha[d] something in the trunk,” stating, “You came into a shipment yard which has a policy that you are not supposed to leave without showing the product that you have picked up, and you are not willing to do that.” Officer Kirchner then handcuffed Mr. Waters, who is significantly taller than either of the female officers, and placed him in the back seat of a squad car. Officer Smith spoke to the nearby Menards employees and asked them if they had ever dealt with sovereign citizens, mentioning that Mr. Waters’s behavior resembled that exhibited by sovereign citizens.
Officer Smith then returned to Appellants’ vehicle. When Officer Smith asked if Mr. Waters was a sovereign citizen, Mrs. Waters replied that her husband “takes it all very seriously.” Officer Smith then told Mrs. Waters that Mr. Waters was creating more problems for himself. Mrs. Waters responded, “I know.” Officer Smith asked Mrs. Waters to identify her husband, and Mrs. Waters did so.
While Officer Smith was speaking with Mrs. Waters, Coon Rapids Police Sergeant Brady Madson arrived on scene. Officer Smith conferred with Sergeant Madson. Officer Kirchner then approached Mrs. Waters and asked, “Would you be willing to open the trunk for these gentlemen? Because that’s the only thing that’s holding us up here.” When Mrs. Waters explained that Appellants had come into the lumberyard to pick up a saw, which a Menards employee placed in the trunk for them, Officer Kirchner stated, “It’d be doing us a huge favor if you could just bring that invoice and step out with these guys and pop the trunk for us. We’ll chalk it up to [Mr. Waters] having a bad day.” Mrs. Waters did as Officer Kirchner requested. A Menards employee and one of the officers looked into the trunk and verified the purchase. The officers then released Mr. Waters, issuing a trespass warning that prevented him from reentering the Coon Rapids Menards for a year.
After receiving the trespass warning but before leaving the lumberyard, Mr. Waters requested the officers’ names and badge numbers. He approached Sergeant Madson to read the name and badge number off the sergeant’s uniform. When Mr. Waters reached well within arm’s length of Sergeant Madson, the sergeant physically turned Mr. Waters away from him and pushed him toward Appellants’ vehicle. Appellants then drove out of the lumberyard. The entire encounter with the officers lasted less than twenty minutes.[ii]
The Waters’ filed a complaint with the police department regarding the officer’s actions. The chief of police reviewed the complaint and determined that the officers acted lawfully. The complaint was closed.
The Waters’ then filed suit in federal district court and alleged numerous federal and state claims. The only claims we will discuss are the Fourth Amendment claims. The district court granted qualified immunity to the officers and dismissed all claims. The Waters’ appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Since the Waters’ were appealing the grant of qualified immunity to the officers, the court of appeals first discussed the rules related to qualified immunity. The court stated
[S]tate actors, such as police officers, are protected from § 1983 suits by the affirmative defense of qualified immunity. See Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 340 (1986); Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 640 (1980) (explaining that qualified immunity is an affirmative defense). Qualified immunity shields police officers from lawsuits based on official conduct if reasonable officers in the same position could have believed their conduct was “lawful, in light of clearly established law and the information the . . . officers possessed” at the time. Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 641 (1987).
Because qualified immunity protects officers from suit, not merely from liability, courts should “resolv[e] immunity questions at the earliest possible stage in litigation.” Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 227 (1991) (per curiam). To overcome qualified immunity, a plaintiff must allege (1) a violation of his statutory or constitutional rights, and (2) that “the right at issue was ‘clearly established’ at the time of [the] defendant’s alleged misconduct.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232 (2009). “Qualified immunity is appropriate only if no reasonable factfinder could answer yes to both of these questions.” Hess v. Ables, 714 F.3d 1048, 1051 (8th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted).[iii] [emphasis added]
With the legal principles related to qualified immunity in mind, the court then set out to examine the various claims at issue.
First, the Waters’ alleged the officers violated Mr. Waters’ Fourth Amendment rights by detaining him or arresting him without probable cause. The court started its examination of this allegation by discussing the relevant legal principles. The court stated
Police officers violate the Fourth Amendment when they conduct an arrest without a warrant or probable cause. Baribeau v. City of Minneapolis, 596 F.3d 465, 478 (8th Cir. 2010) (per curiam). However, in order to effect a temporary investigative detention, officers need only reasonable suspicion based on the totality of the circumstances. See Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 123 (2000); De La Rosa v. White, 852 F.3d 740, 744 (8th Cir. 2017). While “[r]easonable suspicion is a lower threshold than probable cause,” United States v. Carpenter, 462 F.3d 981, 986 (8th Cir. 2006), it requires “at least some minimal level of objective justification.” De La Rosa, 852 F.3d at 744 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 27 (1968) (defining reasonable suspicion as something more than an “inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or ‘hunch'”)…When evaluating whether reasonable suspicion for a Terry stop exists, ‘we view the [officers’] observations as a whole, rather than as discrete and disconnected occurrences.[iv] [emphasis added]
Thus, in order to lawfully detain a person, an officer must possess reasonable suspicion, based on specific, articulable facts, that the person may be involved in criminal activity. However, an officer may still be entitled to qualified immunity for a Terry stop if reasonable suspicion is not present, as long as another reasonable officer in the same situation could have believed that reasonable suspicion was present. This is called “arguable reasonable suspicion” and it entitles the officer to qualified immunity. The court stated
If we determine that an officer lacked reasonable suspicion and thus conducted an unlawful Terry stop, she may nonetheless be entitled to qualified immunity if she had arguable reasonable suspicion—that is, if a reasonable officer in the same position could have believed she had reasonable suspicion. De La Rosa, 852 F.3d at 745-46.[v] [emphasis added]
In Waters’ case, the court of appeals stated that they did not need to rely on arguable reasonable suspicion. The court held the officer had actual reasonable suspicion. The facts that formed the basis for the reasonable suspicion were (1) there were signs posted that vehicles leaving the lumberyard would be inspected, (2) Waters refused to allow his vehicle to be inspected, (3) when the employees called the officers, and the officers arrived, Waters refused to identify himself, and (4) Waters refused to allow anyone to verify his purchase. The court held that the officers, based on the totality of the circumstances, had reasonable suspicion to detain Waters.
Second, the Waters’ alleged that Mr. Waters was subjected to a de facto arrest when he was handcuffed and placed in the back of police car. The court first discussed the legal principles relevant to this allegation. The court stated
A Terry stop may become an arrest, requiring probable cause, if the stop lasts for an unreasonably long time or if officers use unreasonable force.” United States v. Newell, 596 F.3d 876, 879 (8th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). While officers must use “the least intrusive means of detention and investigation . . . reasonably necessary” to conduct the stop, United States v. Navarrete-Barron, 192 F.3d 786, 790 (8th Cir. 1999), they are permitted to “take any measures that are ‘reasonably necessary to protect their personal safety and to maintain the status quo during the course of the stop.'” United States v. Sanford, 813 F.3d 708, 713 (8th Cir. 2016) (per curiam) (quoting United States v. Smith, 648 F.3d 654, 659 (8th Cir. 2011))… T]he use of handcuffs during a Terry stop . . . requires some reasonable belief that the suspect is armed and dangerous or that the restraints are necessary for some other legitimate purpose.” El-Ghazzawy v. Berthiaume, 636 F.3d 452, 457 (8th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted).[vi] [emphasis added]
The court then noted that this entire encounter with the officers lasted approximately twenty (20) minutes. The officers also diligently pursued the investigation, and any delay was due to Mr. Waters’ lack of cooperation. Furthermore, just prior to being handcuffed, Mr. Waters had disobeyed numerous commands to get out of his vehicle. After he got out, he was argumentative and evasive. He was also much larger than the two officers on scene at the time. The court stated
[The officers] could reasonably conclude that Mr. Waters’s unpredictable behavior would continue to escalate and that handcuffing him and briefly placing him in the squad car was the least intrusive means of maintaining the status quo and protecting Mr. Waters, themselves, and bystanders while the officers investigated. See United States v. Smith, 645 F.3d 998, 1001 (8th Cir. 2011) (holding that after a suspect, initially cooperative, became agitated and refused permission when an officer asked to search his car, the officer could maintain the status quo by handcuffing the suspect and placing him in the back of a patrol car until a drug-sniffing dog arrived).[vii]
Thus, since the officers diligently pursued the investigation and the detention lasted only twenty (20) minutes, there was no unreasonable delay. Further, based on Mr. Waters’ erratic behavior, refusal to follow lawful commands, argumentativeness, and the fact that he was much larger than the officers at the scene, it was reasonable to detain Mr. Waters in handcuffs in the back of a police vehicle. Therefore, there was no de facto arrest.
Third, the Waters’ allege the officer’s illegally detained Mrs. Waters in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court first described the legal principle relevant to this issue and stated
It is well-settled law in this circuit that both a passenger and a driver are seized during a Terry stop of a vehicle. United States v. Oliver, 550 F.3d 734, 737 (8th Cir. 2008) (citing Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249, 257-58 (2007); Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408, 413-15 (1997); Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 111-12 (1977)). If an officer acts lawfully in detaining the driver, he acts lawfully in concurrently detaining the passenger. See Brendlin, 551 U.S. at 257-59.[viii] [emphasis added]
For the reasons discussed at the first allegation, the court concluded that Mr. Waters was detained pursuant to reasonable suspicion; as such, Mrs. Waters, who was in the car with Mr. Waters, was lawfully detained.
Fourth, Mr. Waters alleged he was subjected to excessive force when Sergeant Madson physically redirected him away from his person. The court noted the relevant legal principles to this issue. The court stated
To state an excessive force claim under the Fourth Amendment, a plaintiff must show that an officer’s use of force was “objectively unreasonable, given the facts and circumstances of the particular case, as ‘judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.'” Chambers v. Pennycook, 641 F.3d 898, 905-06 (8th Cir. 2011) (quoting Graham, 490 U.S. at 396). “[A] claim must be based upon more than ‘a de minimis use of force.'” Atkinson v. City of Mountain View, 709 F.3d 1201, 1210-11 (8th Cir. 2013) (emphasis omitted) (quoting Chambers, 641 F.3d at 906).[ix] [emphasis added]
The court observed that as Waters approached Sergeant Madson well within arms reach, Sergeant Madson, who had been leaning on a patrol car, gave Waters a light push toward his vehicle to turn Waters away from him. Waters did not allege any injury. The court stated that this was de minimis force. The court then stated
Because a de minimis use of force cannot form the basis for a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim, it cannot be objectively unreasonable in this context.[x]
Therefore, the court held that Sergeant Madson’s use of force was not objectively unreasonable in this situation.
Fifth, and last of the Fourth Amendment issues, the Waters’ allege that the officer’s search of their vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment. The court discussed two relevant legal principles. First, the court stated
While the Fourth Amendment generally prohibits unreasonable searches, see Terry, 392 U.S. at 9, warrantless searches can be valid if conducted pursuant to probable cause or voluntary consent. See United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 165-66 (1974).[xi] [emphasis added]
Second, the court stated
A plaintiff seeking damages under § 1983 for an unreasonable search must allege (1) an unlawful search and (2) an “actual, compensable injury[,]” Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 487 n.7 (1994), because “the abstract value of a constitutional right may not form the basis for § 1983 damages.” Memphis Cmty. Sch. Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299, 308 (1986).[xii]
The officers argue that Mrs. Waters consented to a search of the trunk. However, the court also noted that the Waters’ did not allege an actual compensatory injury. Since the plaintiffs did not meet the requirements above by alleging damaging the court dismissed this allegation.
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the grant of qualified immunity for the officers in this case.
[i] No. 17-3827 (8th Cir. Decided April 11, 2019)
[ii] Id. at 2-6
[iii] Id. at 7-8
[iv] Id. at 10-11
[v] Id. at 11
[vi] Id. at 12-13
[vii] Id. at 14
[viii] Id. at 15
[ix] Id. at 16
[x] Id. at 17
[xii] Id. at 18