On April 18, 2022, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Montgomery v. Calvano[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law as it pertains to false arrest and qualified immunity. The relevant facts of Montgomery are as follows:
Montgomery walked past Commerce City police officer Calvano and out of a Walmart with an unbagged package of cheese. Calvano then approached him and asked to see a receipt. Montgomery did not produce a receipt and did not “confirm nor deny that he paid for the merchandise.” R. at 151. Calvano detained Montgomery while Walmart employees investigated whether Montgomery paid for the cheese.
About 15 minutes later, a Walmart employee told Calvano that Montgomery had not paid for the cheese. So Calvano arrested Montgomery for shoplifting, issued him a summons for petty theft in the amount of $2.37, and let him go. Montgomery then produced a receipt showing he had, in fact, paid for the cheese. A Walmart employee verified the receipt, and Calvano rescinded the summons.”[ii]
Montgomery then sued Officer Calvano for false arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court granted the officer qualified immunity and dismissed the suit, finding that the law was not clearly established. Montgomery appealed grant of qualified immunity to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, the court of appeals first discussed the law related to qualified immunity. Specifically, the court stated
The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231, 129 S. Ct. 808, 172 L. Ed. 2d 565 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). “When a defendant raises the qualified-immunity defense, the plaintiff must . . . establish (1) the defendant violated a federal statutory or constitutional right and (2) the right was clearly established at the time of the defendant’s conduct.” Ullery v. Bradley, 949 F.3d 1282, 1289 (10th Cir. 2020). Courts have discretion to decide which of the two prongs of the qualified-immunity analysis to address first. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236.[iii]
Simply put, when an officer is sued, if he or she files a motion for qualified immunity, the plaintiff must establish (1) that the officer violated a constitution right, and (2) that the right was clearly established at the time of the violation.
The court of appeals then discussed what constitutes “clearly established” law. The court stated
A clearly established right is one that is sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” Mullenix v. Luna, 577 U.S. 7, 11, 136 S. Ct. 305, 193 L. Ed. 2d 255 (2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). “We do not require a case directly on point, but existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” Id. at 12 (internal quotation marks omitted). . . “In the Fourth Amendment context, ‘the result depends very much on the facts of each case,’ and the precedents must ‘squarely govern’ the present case.” Aldaba v. Pickens, 844 F.3d 870, 877 (10th Cir. 2016) (quoting Mullenix, 577 U.S. at 13). “[Q]ualified immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Mullenix, 577 U.S. at 12 (internal quotation marks omitted).[iv]
Thus, while a plaintiff need not show a factually identical case to overcome qualified immunity, the plaintiff must show factually similar case law, that was decided prior to the violation at hand, that would make it clear or beyond debate to any reasonable officer that he or she was violating the plaintiff’s rights.
The court of appeals then set out to examine the law related to probable cause and false arrest. The court noted the following important legal principles:
- Under the Fourth Amendment, a warrantless arrest requires probable cause.” Donahue v. Wihongi, 948 F.3d 1177, 1189 (10th Cir. 2020). “Police officers have probable cause to arrest if ‘the facts and circumstances within the arresting officers’ knowledge and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information were sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing that the suspect had committed or was committing an offense.’” (quoting Adams v. Williams, 407 U.S. 143, 148, 92 S. Ct. 1921, 32 L. Ed. 2d 612 (1972)). [v]
- “[C]ourts assess probable cause ‘from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer’ under the totality of the circumstances.” (quoting Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 696, 116 S. Ct. 1657, 134 L. Ed. 2d 911 (1996)).[vi]
- [T]he probable cause standard of the Fourth Amendment requires officers to reasonably interview witnesses readily available at the scene, investigate basic evidence, or otherwise inquire if a crime has been committed at all before invoking the power of warrantless arrest and detention.” Romero v. Fay, 45 F.3d 1472, 1476-77 (10th Cir. 1995). Probable cause therefore “may arise from information provided by individuals.” Donahue, 948 F.3d at 1189.[vii]
It is very important to note that, as stated in the third bullet point above, that officers are required to “reasonably interview witnesses readily available at the scene, investigate basic evidence,” and inquire if a crime was in fact committed before making a warrantless arrest.
On appeal, Montgomery argued that the law was clearly established that any reasonable officer would have known they were violating his rights under the Fourth Amendment during his arrest. However, the court noted that the case law he cited significantly differed from the facts of his case. For example, in Baptiste, an officer arrived on-scene at a shoplifting call and arrested the suspect in complete reliance on the word of the caller, without so much as interviewing the suspect, viewing the video of the alleged theft, or checking receipts that were in possession of the suspect.[ii] In Lusby, officers arrived on-scene, handcuffed and frisked the suspects, and took them to jail without interviewing witnesses or conducting any investigation to determine if probable cause was present.[iii] Lastly, in Harbin, the officer arrived on-scene, approached the suspect and handcuffed her without speaking to store personnel or interviewing the suspect.[x]
The court of appeals then contrasted the above cases cited by the Montgomery and stated
[I]n contrast, [Officer] Calvano personally witnessed Montgomery walk out of the store with unbagged merchandise and no visible receipt. Calvano then investigated the matter by asking both Montgomery and store employees if Montgomery had paid for the cheese. The store employees said he had not, and Montgomery refused to rebut this allegation. Montgomery’s cited cases therefore do not “squarely govern the present case.[xi]
Thus, the court found that the Officer Calvano had done more of an investigation than the officers in the cases cited by Montgomery and there was no case law provided by Montgomery that previously held that an investigation such as the one done by Officer Calvano violated the Fourth Amendment.
As such, the court of appeals affirmed the grant of qualified immunity for Officer Calvano.
[i] No. 21-1134 (10th Cir. Decided April 18, 2022 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 1-2
[iii] Id. at 2-3 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 3-4 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 4 (emphasis added)
[vi] Id. (emphasis added)
[vii] Id. (emphasis added)
[viii] Baptiste v. JC Penny Co. 147 F.3d 1252 (10th Cir. 1998)
[ix] City of Lawton v. Lusby, 474 U.S. 805 (1985)
[x] Harbin v. City of Albuquerque, , No. CIV 05-550 LCS/RLP, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115999, 2006 WL 8444308 (D.N.M. Apr. 11, 2006)
[xi] Montgomery at 5-6