On December 21, 2020, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Williams v. City of Montgomery[i], which is instructive regarding liability for arresting the wrong person, due to mistaken identity, when executing an arrest warrant. The relevant facts of Williams, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
At the request of the Montgomery School Enforcement Bureau, Officer Shirah, Sergeant Geier, and Officer Blake Hicks drove to 6812 Briar Gate Court to arrest a student, Braxton Williams, on five felony warrants outstanding in another jurisdiction. Hicks and Geier walked to the house and spoke to a woman who identified herself as Braxton’s cousin. Shirah activated his body camera and stood at the front corner of the house where he could see the side yard and his fellow officers standing in front of a glass storm door with iron bars that was ajar.
A young man came to the door to talk to Hicks and Geier. The man resembled Braxton Williams, whose photograph the officers had viewed earlier. The officers asked Williams to identify himself, and he responded that his name was Brandon. While talking to Williams, one of the officers further opened the door.
When Williams told the officers a second time that his name was Brandon, they grabbed his arm, which was visible through the storm door, and pulled him outside the house. Shirah observed the officers’ movement and ran to assist them. A 30-second struggle ensued during which the officers pushed Williams against the outside of the house and then to the ground. Williams yelled “help” and “no” while being instructed to “put your hands behind your back” and to “give [us] your hands.” Williams insisted that he was innocent, as he was Brandon Williams, Braxton’s brother, and was 18 years old. When Williams returned to his feet, a small amount of blood was visible on his left eyebrow. Williams yelled “help” as the officers escorted him to a patrol car, and an officer warned him that, if he fought them, they would “chain his ass to that g*d*mn pole right there.”
Williams offered both his own affidavit and that of his cousin, Kimberly Williams, who first answered the door and witnessed the events. Kimberly stated in her affidavit that “Brandon’s demeanor in his encounter with the police was calm and without any acts of aggression towards them…He was polite and mild mannered…I did not observe Brandon to have engaged in any criminal conduct towards the police officers.” In his affidavit, Williams stated, “My demeanor in this encounter with the police was calm and without any acts of aggression towards them. I answered their questions truthfully about my identity and was polite and mild mannered in accordance with my personality.”
The officers transported Williams to the police station. Within a few hours of Williams’s arrival, officers in the Criminal Investigation Division identified him as Braxton’s brother. In his affidavit, Mr. Williams stated that he overheard the officers state that they “had made a mistake and now they had to find something to charge [Brandon] with.” Shirah filed a complaint against Williams for harassment, and Williams was released on bond. Later, the City nol prossed the complaint.[ii]
Williams filed suit and alleged the officers violated the Fourth Amendment by falsely arresting him and using excessive force. The district court granted qualified immunity for the officers and dismissed the suit. Williams appealed the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. [Note: Williams also alleged state tort claims under Alabama law but this article will not discuss the stated claims.]
The first issue was whether the officers violated the Fourth Amendment by mistakenly arresting Brandon Williams on a warrant that was for Braxton Williams.
The court first discussed the general legal principles involved regarding mistaken identity arrests. The court stated
[A]n officer ordinarily does not violate the Fourth Amendment when he executes a facially valid arrest warrant . . . .” Williams v. Aguirre, 965 F.3d 1147, 1162 (11th Cir. 2020). So “when the police have probable cause to arrest one party [based on a valid warrant], and when they reasonably mistake a second party for the first party, then the arrest of the second party is a valid arrest.” Hill v. California, 401 U.S. 797, 802, 91 S. Ct. 1106, 28 L. Ed. 2d 484 (1971). An arrest based on a reasonable mistake in identity does not violate the Fourth Amendment. Rodriguez, 280 F.3d at 1346-48.[iii]
The court also noted that some minor difference in appearance does not render the arrest unreasonable. Particularly, the court stated
[T]he failure to notice “small differences” in the men’s appearances did not make the mistaken identity unreasonable because the officers had to make a prompt determination while “in the field and not in a police station.[iv]
The court then examined the facts of Williams’s case. First, when the police arrived at Braxton’s home, they met a woman who stated she was Braxton’s cousin. She then sent Brandon to the door to talk to the police. Second, Brandon resembled Braxton. Third, Brandon identified himself as Brandon Williams, however, the police correctly noted that aliases and false names are commonly used by wanted persons. Regarding this, the court further noted that
Officers “executing an arrest warrant . . . [are not] required . . . to investigate independently every claim of innocence, [even when] the claim is based on mistaken identity,” Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 145-46, 99 S. Ct. 2689, 61 L. Ed. 2d 433 (1979)…[v]
Based on the above facts and legal principles discussed, the court of appeals held that the officers “reasonably mistook Williams for his brother” and were entitled to qualified immunity from the false arrest claim.
The second issue was whether the officers used excessive force under the Fourth Amendment when they arrested Williams.
The court then discussed the relevant legal principles and stated
[T]he right to make an arrest or investigatory stop necessarily carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat thereof to effect it.” Rodriguez, 280 F.3d at 1351 (internal quotation marks omitted). So an officer’s use of de minimis force to make an arrest does not violate the Fourth Amendment. Nolin v. Isbell, 207 F.3d 1253, 1257 (11th Cir. 2000).
To determine whether a particular use of force was excessive, we ask whether a reasonable officer would believe that the force applied was necessary in the situation. Lee, 284 F.3d at 1197. “[T]he excessive force inquiry [is] completely objective . . . [and] exclud[es] consideration of the officer’s intentions.” Id. at 1198 n.7. In our inquiry, we consider the severity of the arrestee’s crime and his efforts to resist arrest. Id. at 1197-98. We also consider the need for use of force, the relationship between that need and the amount of force applied, the extent of the injury inflicted, and whether the force was applied in good faith or gratuitously. Slicker v. Jackson, 215 F.3d 1225, 1232-33 (11th Cir. 2000).[vi]
The court then examined the facts relevant to the excessive force issue. First, the officers were confronting a man they reasonably believed was wanted for five felony charges. Second, they reasonably believed that Williams was trying to deceive them about his identity. Third, the officers grabbed Williams before he could retreat into the residence and possibly obtain a weapon. Fourth, the court noted that “when Williams resisted arrest and refused to comply with the officer’s orders,” they followed their standard procedure of forcing him to the ground and using bodyweight to hold him until they secured him in handcuffs.[vii] The court noted
We have approved of officers using similar force in situations that were less perilous. See Nolin, 207 F.3d at 1255; Post v. City of Fort Lauderdale, 7 F.3d 1552, 1559-60 (11th Cir. 1993).[viii]
The court of appeals also considered that Williams alleged that the officers “choked him,” and “kneed him in the head” while he was being placed in the police car. The court then stated
[Q]ualified immunity applies to these uses of force as well. “[Q]ualified immunity applies unless application of the standard would inevitably lead every reasonable officer in [Geier and Shirah’s] position to conclude the force was unlawful.” Id. at 1559. Even when “no further force [is] needed,” its use is “not plainly unlawful” when the minor nature of an injury reflects that the officers used a minimal amount of force. See Nolin, 207 F.3d at 1256-58[ix]
The court explained that the “minor force used against and injury sustained by Williams” was considered de minimis force and does not defeat the officer’s qualified immunity in this case.
As such, the court of appeals affirmed the grant of qualified immunity for the officers on the Fourth Amendment claims.
[i] No. 19-14925 (11th Cir. Decided December 21, 2020)
[ii] Id. at 3-5
[iii] Id. at 7-8 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 9 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. (emphasis added)
[vi] Id. at 11 (emphasis added)
[vii] Id. at 12