On December 30, 2021, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided Stallworth v. Hurst[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. The relevant facts of Stallworth are as follows:
Stallworth was driving from Daleville to Birmingham, Alabama in a newly purchased car. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., she stopped at a gas station located off the interstate and took a nap in her vehicle. Hurst, who was on patrol duty at the time, arrived at the same gas station around 11:00 p.m. to conduct a routine business check and noticed Stallworth’s parked automobile running with the lights on.
Stallworth eventually resumed her drive, and as she drove away from the gas station, Hurst noticed that her car had a dealership drive-off tag rather than a government-issued license plate. Soon after, Hurst, too, resumed driving on the highway. While on the highway, Hurst observed Stallworth driving erratically, including changing lanes without signaling and swerving in her lane.
Hurst pulled Stallworth over and inquired how she was doing and whether she had consumed any alcohol. Stallworth replied that she hadn’t and that she was just “a little tired.” Doc. 53-1 (Vid. 23:57:05-23:57:12). She further insisted that she didn’t drink or do drugs. While Hurst checked Stallworth’s license in his computer, Hurst organized some of the belongings in her car. Upon returning and noticing an open bottle of liquid on the car’s floorboard, Hurst asked Stallworth what it was, to which she replied that it was tea. As they conversed, Hurst observed that Stallworth’s speech was slurred, her eyes were “glossy,” and she was slow to react to his questions.
Hurst, and another officer, whom Hurst had called for backup, asked Stallworth to exit her car so that they could perform field sobriety tests. Based on those tests, Hurst concluded that probable cause existed that Stallworth had been driving “under the influence.” Hurst asked whether Stallworth had anyone who could pick her up or whether she would be willing to go to the hospital to get checked out. When she answered both questions in the negative, Hurst arrested her for driving under the influence.
At the county jail, Stallworth was administered a test to determine whether she had alcohol in her system. The results came back negative. Regardless, Hurst charged Stallworth with driving under the influence of an unknown substance pursuant to Ala. Code § 32-5A-191(a)(5). When Stallworth appeared for trial, Hurst recommended dismissal of the case on the condition that Stallworth submit to and pass a drug test. Stallworth took and passed the drug test, and the charges were voluntarily dismissed with prejudice.[ii]
Stallworth subsequently sued Hurst for violating her Fourth Amendment rights related to false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. The district court granted summary judgment for the officer based on qualified immunity and dismissed the suit. Stallworth appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The issue on appeal was whether Hurst was entitled to qualified immunity for the false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution claims.
Government officials, such as police officers, are entitled to qualified immunity from suits if they are acting within their discretionary authority. Officers are acting within their discretionary authority when they are making decisions that require choosing between various options. For example, an officer exercises discretionary authority when deciding whether or not to arrest someone.
The court of appeals then explained that once an officer establishes that he or she was acting within their discretionary authority, the burden to overcome qualified immunity shifts to the plaintiff. The plaintiff must satisfy a two-prong analysis. Specifically, the court stated
To obtain qualified immunity, an official such as a police officer must first show he was act[ing] within his discretionary authority. Once an official establishes that his activities were within that scope, the plaintiff must demonstrate (1) that the facts show that the official violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights and (2) that the law clearly established those rights at the time of the alleged misconduct.[iii]
The court of appeals then set out to examine each of Stallworth’s claims.
First, the court examined the false arrest claim and explained the applicable law as follows:
When police officers conduct a warrantless arrest without probable cause, they violate the Fourth Amendment and therefore open themselves to suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for damages. See Case v. Eslinger, 555 F.3d 1317, 1326 (11th Cir. 2009); Marx v. Gumbinner, 905 F.2d 1503, 1505 (11th Cir. 1990). But probable cause is an “absolute bar to a section 1983 action for false arrest.” Case, 555 F. 3d at 1326-27. And, in the Fourth Amendment context, an officer need only have “arguable” probable cause to claim qualified immunity. See Wood v. Kesler, 323 F.3d 872, 878 (11th Cir. 2003).
“Probable cause exists when ‘the facts and circumstances within the officer’s knowledge, of which he or she has reasonably trustworthy information, would cause a prudent person to believe, under the circumstances shown, that the suspect has committed, is committing, or is about to commit an offense.'” Wilkerson v. Seymour, 736 F.3d 974, 978 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1195 (11th Cir.2002)). And 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’ the plaintiffs.” Id. at 978 (quotations omitted).[iv]
Stated another way, “arguable probable cause,” exists when an officer mistakenly, but reasonably believes probable cause was present.
Thus, if an officer has probable cause or arguable probable cause, he is entitled to summary judgment based on qualified immunity on a false arrest claim. In other words, the plaintiff would fail to meet the two-pronged test to defeat the officer’s qualified immunity.
The court then examined the facts of Stallworth’s case to determine if probable cause, or arguable probable cause existed. The court noted that by the time the officer arrested Stallworth, he had observed her (1) erratic driving, (2) glossy eyes, (3) slurred speech, and (4) deficient performance of field sobriety tests. The court then stated
Based on these observations, a reasonable officer in the same situation and with the same knowledge “could have believed that probable cause existed to arrest” Stallworth for driving under the influence of an impairing substance.[v]
Thus, the court held that the officer was entitled summary judgment based on qualified immunity from the false arrest claim.
Second, the court examined the false imprisonment claim and explained the applicable law as follows:
Where a police officer lacks probable cause to make an arrest, the arrestee has a claim under section 1983 for false imprisonment based on a detention pursuant to that arrest.” Ortega v. Christian, 85 F.3d 1521, 1526 (11th Cir. 1996). “A false imprisonment claim under § 1983 requires meeting the common law elements of false imprisonment and establishing that the imprisonment was a due process violation under the Fourteenth Amendment.” Helm v. Rainbow City, 989 F.3d 1265, 1278 (11th Cir. 2021).
[I]n order to establish a due process violation, a plaintiff must show that the officer acted with deliberate indifference, i.e., demonstrating that the officer had subjective knowledge of a risk of serious harm and disregarded that risk by actions beyond mere negligence. If an officer has arguable probable cause to seize an individual, that finding may defeat a claim of deliberate indifference. Id. at 1278-79 (quotations removed and emphasis added).[vi]
As discussed in the above regarding the false arrest claim, the officer had arguable probable cause to believe the Stallworth was driving under the influence of an impairing substance. Thus, this defeats the initial detention or arrest. However, Stallworth argued that the officer still continued with the arrest, even after the test at the county jail revealed she did not have alcohol in her system. To this argument, the court stated
But Hurst could have reasonably believed that Stallworth was under the influence of some other substance. Thus, Hurst still had arguable probable cause for Stallworth’s arrest, and he is entitled to summary judgment on this claim as well.[vii]
Lastly, the court examined the malicious prosecution claim and explained the applicable law as follows:
To establish a federal malicious prosecution claim under § 1983, the plaintiff must prove a violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures in addition to the elements of the common law tort of malicious prosecution.” Wood, 323 F.3d at 881 (emphasis removed). “Under the common-law elements of malicious prosecution, [Stallworth] must prove that the officers instituted or continued a criminal prosecution against [her], with malice and without probable cause, that terminated in [her] favor and caused damage to [her].” Williams v. Aguirre, 965 F.3d 1147, 1157 (11th Cir. 2020) (quotations omitted). We have previously held that a “plaintiff’s arrest cannot serve as the predicate deprivation of liberty because it occurred prior to the time of arraignment, and was not one that arose from malicious prosecution as opposed to false arrest.” Kingsland v. City of Miami, 382 F.3d 1220, 1235 (11th Cir. 2004) (quotations omitted).
Regarding this claim, the court stated that Stallworth fail to show that the law was clearly established by showing a factually similar case that would put a reasonable officer on notice that he was violating a constitutional right, nor was the case so egregious to be plainly obvious that a right was violated. As such, the officer was entitled to qualified immunity on the malicious prosecution claim.
Therefore, the officer was entitled to qualified immunity on all claims.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] No. 21-10731 (11th Cir. Decided December 30, 2021 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 2-3
[iii] Id. at 4 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 4-5 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 6
[vi] Id. at 6-7 (emphasis added)
[vii] Id. at 7