On July 27, 2022, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Webster v. Westlake[i], which serves as an excellent review of when the court will deny qualified immunity for officers in a false arrest claim. The relevant facts of Webster are as follows:
School officials contacted the Iowa Department of Human Services after a school nurse found marks, abrasions, and bruising on seven-year-old L.B.’s legs. L.B. explained that her father, Robert Rushing, caused the injuries when he disciplined her with a belt after she got in trouble at school. L.B. said that her mother, Trenisha Webster, is usually in charge of punishment, but that night Rushing took over because Webster was feeling sick. DHS opened a child abuse investigation and assigned it to Melissa Krug, a social worker. Krug interviewed L.B. at school and took several photographs. Then she went to speak with Webster. Webster refused to talk to Krug, allow her inside the house, or let her check on her two children. Afterwards, Krug’s supervisor told her to return to Webster’s house with police. Krug came back later that day with four law enforcement officials: two Des Moines police officers and two detectives from the family conflict unit, Jennifer Westlake and Lori Kelly.
The entire exchange between Webster and the detectives was captured by body camera. When Webster answered the door, Detective Westlake confronted her with pictures of L.B. Webster denied that they depicted injuries, instead calling them “a marking of a punishment. She also disagreed that the marks were evidence of excessive punishment. When Westlake asked to see L.B., Webster said that she was “fine” and “with me. Westlake explained that she needed to check on L.B. and form a safety plan with the parents. Webster said Westlake could come inside and discuss the incident at her dinner table, but she insisted that the other officers remain outside because she didn’t trust DHS. Westlake declined and asked Webster, Rushing, and the kids to come to the police station instead. After about six minutes of arguing in circles, Westlake arrested Webster for “interference in [her] investigation.” Webster was charged with interference with official acts the next day. The charges were later dismissed with prejudice.[ii]
Webster sued Detectives Westlake and Kelly for false arrest under the Fourth Amendment and abuse of process under Iowa law. The detectives filed a motion for summary judgment and qualified immunity. The district court denied the detective’s motion and granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff, Westlake. The detectives appealed the denial of qualified immunity to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. [Note: This article will only discuss the Fourth Amendment claim.]
The Eighth Circuit first noted that, to decide whether the detectives are entitled to qualified immunity, the court must conduct a two-step analysis. First, the court must decide whether the detectives violated the Fourth Amendment. Second, the court must determine whether the law was clearly established such that another reasonable officer in the same situation would have known he was violating the Fourth Amendment.
Qualified Immunity – Step One: Did the detectives violate the Fourth Amendment when they arrested Webster?
The court of appeals then examined the legal principles relevant to the first step of the qualified immunity analysis. The court stated
The Fourth Amendment protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. A warrantless arrest violates the Fourth Amendment unless it is supported by probable cause. See Borgman v. Kedley, 646 F.3d 518, 522-23 (8th Cir. 2011). Probable cause exists when the totality of circumstances at the time of arrest would lead a reasonable person to think the defendant committed or is committing a crime. Ulrich v. Pope Cnty., 715 F.3d 1054, 1059 (8th Cir. 2013).[iii]
In order to determine if the detectives had probable cause to believe that Westlake had committed the Iowa offense of “interference with official acts,” the court examined state case law related to this statute. The court explained
A person commits interference with official acts when the person knowingly resists or obstructs anyone known by the person to be a peace officer . . . in the performance of any act which is within the scope of the lawful duty or authority of that officer.” Iowa Code § 719.1(1)(a). To “resist” means to engage in opposition with the officer, using actual or constructive force, such that it is “reasonably necessary for the officer to use force to carry out his duty.” State v. Donner, 243 N.W.2d 850, 854 (Iowa 1976). To “[o]bstruct is broader than [to] resist and includes putting obstacles in the path of officers completing their duties.” State v. Sullivan, 764 N.W.2d 783, 783 (Iowa Ct. App. 2009) (unpublished). Section 719.1(1)(a) requires “active interference”—mere objection or failure to cooperate with officers is not enough. State v. Smithson, 594 N.W.2d 1, 2 (Iowa 1999). Physical force, however, is not required. Donner, 243 N.W.2d at 854.[iv]
Thus, in order for a person to be in violation of the “interference with official acts” statute, a person must commit some form of active interference; the mere failure to cooperate with the police will not suffice.
The detectives argued that another Iowa statute, specifically Iowa Code § 232.71B(3)(a), gave the detectives a lawful duty to ensure L.B.’s welfare and that it does not give parents the right to deny them access to the child. However, the court of appeals disagreed, noting that Iowa statute cannot take away a person’s Constitutional rights. Specifically, the court stated
Iowa Code § 232.71B(3)(a) imposes a duty on law enforcement to support the DHS and ensure child safety. It does not, however, impose any obligation on citizens. Nor does it abrogate a citizen’s constitutional protections. Moreover, § 232.71B(3)(a) only allows law enforcement to take lawful actions to protect a child. So—and this almost goes without saying—the acts that officers can take to fulfill their duty are bound by the Constitution. This is not to say that law enforcement has no options. Court orders—such as warrants or removal orders—are lawful constitutional options.[v]
The court then noted that the Fourth Amendment prohibits police from entering a person’s residence without a warrant, absent exigent circumstances. Additionally, the Fourteenth Amendment protects the rights of parents to make decisions regarding the “care, custody and control of their children.”[vi]
The court explained that when Webster refused to allow the detectives access to L.B., they could have sought a warrant or pursued removal paperwork to remove the child from the home. However, they did not pursue those options.
The court then examined the facts of Webster’s case in light of the legal principles discussed. The court noted that there were two lawful ways for the detectives to see L.B. First, Webster could have brought L.B. outside to see them or, second, Webster could have provided valid consent for the detectives to enter the residence and see L.B. Webster refused to do either, but she did not offer “active interference” to the officers. Rather, Webster refused to remove the Constitutional barriers already in place, and the law does not require her to relinquish her Constitutional rights.
As such, the court of appeals held that the detectives did violate the Fourth Amendment in that there was not probable cause to believe that Webster violated the state “interference with official acts” statute.
Qualified Immunity – Step Two: Was the law clearly established so that another reasonable officer would have known the arrest violated the Fourth Amendment?
The court first noted the legal principles regarding clearly established law as it pertains to claims of false arrest under the Fourth Amendment. The court stated
Although the detectives violated Webster’s Fourth Amendment rights, they are entitled to qualified immunity if the right was not clearly established on October 16, 2018. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 244. HN10 “It is clearly established that a warrantless arrest, unsupported by probable cause, violates the Fourth Amendment.” Baribeau v. City of Minneapolis, 596 F.3d 465, 478 (8th Cir. 2010) (per curiam). Further, citizens enjoy the right to refuse or terminate voluntary encounters with police. See United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 553, 100 S. Ct. 1870, 64 L. Ed. 2d 497 (1980) . . .
However, the detectives would be entitled to qualified immunity if they had “arguable probable cause” to arrest Webster for interference with official acts. Baribeau, 596 F.3d at 478. “Arguable probable cause exists even where an officer mistakenly arrests a suspect believing it is based in probable cause if the mistake is objectively reasonable.” Borgman, 646 F.3d at 523 (quotation omitted). “[T]he existence of probable cause or arguable probable cause depends on the viewpoint of an objectively reasonable officer, not the viewpoint of the particular arresting officer.” Ulrich, 715 F.3d at 1060 (citation omitted).[vii]
Thus, if the detectives had “arguable probable cause,” which means another reasonable officer in the same situation could believe that probable cause was present, then they are still entitled to qualified immunity. This is viewed from the “objectively reasonable officer” viewpoint, not the viewpoint of the arresting officer. The court of appeals, then decided, after examining Iowa case law regarding the “interference with official acts” statute, that the law was clearly established such that another reasonable officer in the situation in Webster’s case would have known that there was no probable cause for the arrest. Specifically, the court stated
As discussed above, Iowa case law from 1999 on establishes that mere failure to cooperate with an officer’s requests does not violate § 719.1(1)(a). Smithson, 594 N.W.2d at 3; see also, e.g., State v. Betts, 885 N.W.2d 217, 217 (Iowa Ct. App. 2016) (unpublished); State v. Carey, 852 N.W.2d 20, 20 (Iowa Ct. App. 2014) (unpublished). Both Westlake and Kelly testified that their detective’s training included the relevant case law interpreting § 719.1(1)(a). A reasonable officer in the detectives’ position would have known that Webster’s passive refusal to cooperate was not interference with an official act and did not create probable cause for arrest. As a result, the detectives lacked even arguable probable cause.[viii]
The court of appeals also noted that
[Q]ualified immunity may apply if there was probable cause or arguable probable cause to arrest Webster for any crime at the time of the arrest. Devenpeck v. Alford, 543 U.S. 146, 153, 125 S. Ct. 588, 160 L. Ed. 2d 537 (2004).[ix]
Here, the court stated that the other crime at issue would have been “child endangerment;” however, probable cause for that offense may have been present to arrest Webster’s boyfriend, Rushing, but not Webster. This is because L.B. identified Rushing as the person that put the marks on her body.
In summary, the court held that the detectives did not have probable cause or arguable probable cause to arrest Webster for “interference” or any other offense, and her right to be from unlawful warrantless arrest was clearly established before the incident occurred.
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of qualified immunity for the officers.
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. 21-15522 (8th Cir. Decided July 27, 2022)
[ii] Id. at 1-3
[iii] Id. at 3-4 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 6-7
[v] Id. at 8
[vi] Id. at 8-9
[vii] Id. at 10-11 (emphasis added)
[viii] Id. at 11-12 (emphasis added)
[ix] Id. at 12 (emphasis added)