On March 4, 2020, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Moore v. Gwinnett County et al.[i], in which the court of appeals examined whether officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they arrested a landlord at the scene of a landlord/tenant dispute. The relevant facts of Moore, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
Moore rented a home in Gwinnett County and her lease allowed her to sublet rooms to others. The two incidents giving rise to this suit involve disputes between Moore and sublessees when police officers were called to intervene.
A. The First Incident (2014)
During the summer of 2014, Moore began having conflicts with one of her sublessees, Christopher Lawrence. On July 14, after several weeks of tension, Moore entered Lawrence’s locked room without permission by using a master key. She collected Lawrence’s belongings and transferred most of them to a storage facility. Moore also changed the locks to the house. At this time, Moore did not have a dispossessory warrant.
When Lawrence returned home from work and discovered he was locked out, he called the police. Roberts, Leigh, and Richey arrived soon after, and Lawrence explained that Moore had removed his property. Lawrence showed the officers a document Moore had provided him listing the address of the storage facility. Officer Leigh confirmed that the storage facility was closed for the night and thus Lawrence could not access his property.
The three officers approached Moore’s front door, and Leigh knocked. Moore answered by opening the door far enough to put her left arm out. After a brief discussion in which Moore admitted she took Lawrence’s belongings to the storage locker without his permission, the officers told her she was under arrest for theft by taking and commanded her to step outside. Moore did not comply and quarreled over the reason for her arrest. Roberts repeated the instruction for Moore to step out, and Moore responded, “I don’t have shoes or nothing on.” An officer replied, “We’ll get your shoes.” The back and forth over Moore’s shoes and the reason for her arrest continued, and tempers on both sides quickly rose.
What happened next is somewhat disputed. Moore testified that she suddenly bent down behind the door to get her shoes. She then “blacked out,” only to regain consciousness a few moments later while lying on the floor of her foyer with an officer holding one of her arms behind her back. An officer threatened, “Ma’am, if you do not turn around, you’re gonna get tased . . . again.” At that moment Moore blacked out again, but came to a few seconds later. Moore concedes that throughout this struggle she engaged in “passive resistance, “4 but she denies “attempt[ing] to hit or kick the officers.” Eventually, the officers stood her up and placed her in handcuffs. Moore testified that she was tased three or four times in total during the course of these events.
The officers’ account of the arrest is mostly compatible with Moore’s, with two significant exceptions. The officers testified that, as Moore retreated into the dark foyer, Leigh grabbed her left arm (which, again, had been outside of the door) to stop her from “reaching for a nightstand” and thus prevent her from obtaining “whatever item, whether it was a gun or shoes.” At that same moment, Roberts grabbed Moore’s right arm, and Moore “pulled” Roberts inside the house. Leigh and Richey immediately came inside to help Roberts complete the arrest.
Contrary to Moore’s version of the events, the officers assert that Moore resisted by “thrashing” and “kicking,” and ignored their repeated commands to place her hands behind her back. Richey claims that Moore then kicked him in the groin, at which point he determined the situation might warrant the use of his taser to subdue her. Roberts then loudly warned Moore that she would get tased if she did not comply. After the officers repeated commands to Moore for her to put her hands behind her back and seeing no compliance, Richey “drive stunned” Moore on her lower back—that is, he removed the probes and applied the taser directly to her person while administering a shock.
Also in variance with Moore’s testimony, Richey contends that he pulled the taser’s trigger only once. This single pull initiated a five-second, continual tase. Because Moore pulled away from the taser as soon as it began shocking her, Richey quickly re-applied the device to her back as it continued the same five-second release. Corroborating Richey’s testimony, the taser’s log file confirms that the device was fired just once.
After being handcuffed, Moore told Richey and a sergeant (who had been called to the scene) that she had no complaints of injuries and did not require medical assistance. Moore was then transferred to jail. Leigh sought an arrest warrant on the basis of theft and obstructing an officer. The magistrate judge declined to issue a warrant on the theft charge because the judge had spoken with Moore at an earlier time and advised her to place Lawrence’s property in a storage facility. This prior communication between the judge and Moore came as a surprise to the officers. The magistrate nevertheless issued the warrant on the basis of felony obstruction. Accordingly, Moore was charged with obstructing or hindering a law enforcement officer in violation of Georgia law.5
B. The Second Incident (2015)
A year and a half later, on November 27, 2015, Moore had a dispute with a different sublessee, Shannon Daley. Officer Law and two other officers were called to the scene and quickly learned that Moore had self-evicted Daley without a dispossessory warrant. Daley was willing to leave but needed to re-enter the house to obtain personal property that was still in his room. Because Moore initially refused Law’s instructions to allow Daley to re-enter the house to obtain his property, Law obtained a warrant for her arrest, charging her with trespassing pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 16-10-24(a) [sic]. While Law left the scene to retrieve the warrant, another officer spoke with Moore through a window of the house. Officers warned Moore that they had obtained an arrest warrant and would arrest her unless she allowed Daley to re-enter the house to obtain his property. Moore complied and let Daley in with an officer escort. Immediately after Daley and an officer exited the home, Law recalled the warrant.[ii]
Moore filed suit against the officers and alleged they violated her rights under the Fourth Amendment by committing false arrest, illegal warrantless entry into her residence, and excessive force. The district court granted qualified immunity to all officers on all claims and dismissed the case. Moore appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, the court first examined the claims associated with the 2014 incident, specifically, false arrest, illegal home entry, and excessive force.
The court first addressed the false arrest claim and addressed the legal principles that were relevant. While an arrest must be supported by probable cause to comply with the Fourth Amendment, in order for an officer to receive qualified immunity from suit, the officer must only have “arguable probable cause.” Arguable probable cause is a lower standard than actual probable cause. Specifically, the court stated
An officer seeking qualified immunity “need not have actual probable cause, but only ‘arguable’ probable cause.” Grider v. City of Auburn, Ala., 618 F.3d 1240, 1257 (11th Cir. 2010) (quoting Brown v. City of Huntsville, Ala., 608 F.3d 724, 735 (11th Cir. 2010). “Arguable probable cause exists where ‘reasonable officers in the same circumstances and possessing the same knowledge as the Defendants could have believed that probable cause existed to arrest Plaintiff.'” Id. (quoting Kingsland v. City of Miami, 382 F.3d 1220, 1232 (11th Cir. 2004)). This standard is objective, and it “does not include an inquiry into the officer’s subjective intent or beliefs.” Grider, 618 F.3d at 1257. Furthermore, “[w]hether an officer possesses arguable probable cause depends on the elements of the alleged crime and the operative fact pattern.” Id. An officer need not prove every element of a crime in order to show she had arguable probable cause. Id.[iii]
The court then discussed the Georgia theft by taking statute and stated
O.C.G.A. § 16-8-2, [..] prohibits a person from “unlawfully tak[ing] or . . . appropriat[ing] any property of another with the intention of depriving him of the property, regardless of the manner in which the property is taken or appropriated.” Georgia law “defines the crime of theft by taking as the act of unlawfully taking another’s property with the intent to withhold it ‘permanently or temporarily.'” Sorrells v. State, 267 Ga. 236 (1996) (emphasis in original) (quoting O.C.G.A. § 16-8-1(1)(A)).[iv]
In this case, Moore admitted to the officers that she took the tenant’s property and secured it at a storage facility. The storage facility was closed at the time of the call, and as such, the tenant was deprived of his property. Therefore, the officers had probable cause, or at a minimum, arguable probable cause to arrest Moore. The court noted that the fact that a judge previously told Moore to place the tenant’s property in a storage facility, a fact they did not know at the time of the arrest, was irrelevant. What was relevant was the fact that Moore took the tenant’s property without a dispossessory warrant and without his permission. As such, the court held the officers had probable cause so the false arrest claim failed.
Second, the court examined the alleged illegal warrantless entry into Moore’s residence. The court first noted
The Constitution allows some exceptions to the general prohibition against warrantless entry into a home, including where “exigent circumstances” exist. Id. Exigent circumstances may include “danger to the arresting officers . . . .” Id. at 1245 (quoting United States v. Edmondson, 791 F.2d 1512, 1515 (11th Cir. 1986)).[v]
The court also noted that Moore was argumentative with the officers as she stood at the doorway to the dark foyer of the residence. She then reached into the dark foyer in direct contradiction to the officer’s verbal commands. The court stated that it was reasonable for the officers to conclude they faced an “imminent risk of serious injury,” and as such, based upon those exigent circumstances, the entry into Moore’s residence did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
Third, the court examined the excessive force allegation. The court first examined the law related to the excessive force claim and stated
Like other Fourth Amendment inquiries, judicial scrutiny of an officer’s use of force “requires balancing of the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the relevant government interests.” County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, 137 S. Ct. 1539, 1546 (2017). “The operative question in excessive force cases is ‘whether the totality of the circumstances justifie[s] a particular sort of search or seizure.'” Id. at 1546 (alteration in original) (quoting Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 8-9 (1985)). We assess the reasonableness of the force used under an objective rubric that “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Id. (quoting Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989)). We conduct a three-part inquiry to facilitate our constitutional evaluation of an officer’s use of force by considering: “(1) the need for the application of force, (2) the relationship between the need and amount of force used, and (3) the extent of the injury inflicted.” Stephens v. DeGiovanni, 852 F.3d 1298, 1324 (11th Cir. 2017) (quoting Vinyard v. Wilson, 311 F.3d 1340, 1347 (2002)).[vi]
The court then set out to examine the facts of Moore’s case in light of the three-part inquiry discussed above. The first factor examines the need for the application of force. In summary, Moore was uncooperative, disobeyed officers’ orders, and reached into a dark foyer, thereby creating a reasonable belief by officers that she posed an imminent threat. Further, the officers even warned Moore that she would be “tased.” As such, this factor weighed in favor of the officers.
The second factor is the relationship between the need for force and the amount of force used. The court noted that, while Moore alleged she was “tased” multiple times, the download from the taser showed that it was only used once. This was corroborated by audio from an officer’s body camera. Additionally, the officer removed the cartridge and used the device in drive-stun mode. The court stated that one use of the taser, after a physical struggle has begun, was not disproportionate to the officer’s need for Moore to submit to the arrest. As such, this factor weighed in favor of the officers.
The third factor is the extent of the injury inflicted. In this case, Moore alleged that she temporarily blacked out and has a scar. The court also noted that, at the time of the incident, the officers asked Moore if she needed medical attention, and she said she did not. The court then held that the injury alleged by Moore was not enough to show that the use of the taser was not justified. Thus, this weighed in favor of the officers.
In light of the analysis above, the court held Moore did not meet her burden of proof by showing that the officers used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The final claim asserted by Moore was a false arrest claim for the incident in 2015. The court noted that in this incident, an officer obtained an arrest warrant for Moore for violating the criminal trespass statute, however, he dismissed the warrant without arresting Moore when she complied and allowed the tenant to recover his property. Moore alleged that she was effectively under “house arrest” when officers surrounded her home, even though she was never taken into custody. The court appeals stated that they did not need to address her allegation of “house arrest” because the officer had obtained a valid arrest warrant. The court stated
The law is plain that an officer who arrests someone pursuant to a valid warrant has no liability for false arrest . . . .”); see also Brown, 608 F.3d at 734 (“An arrest without a warrant and lacking probable cause violates the Constitution and can underpin a § 1983 claim, but the existence of probable cause at the time of arrest is an absolute bar to a subsequent constitutional challenge to the arrest.”) (emphasis added). Here, it is undisputed that Law obtained a warrant, and Moore does not challenge whether the police had a sufficient basis of probable cause to support that warrant. Accordingly, even if she could show that Law’s actions constituted an arrest, the existence of a lawfully obtained and valid warrant precludes her claim for false arrest.[vii]
Thus, this false arrest claim failed because the officer had obtained a warrant.
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the decision of the district court.
[i] No. 19-11647 (11th Cir. Decided March 4, 2020 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 3-8
[iii] Id. at 9-10 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 10
[v] Id. at 12 (emphasis added)
[vi] Id. at 13-14 (emphasis added)
[vii] Id. at 18 (emphasis added)