On November 17, 2022, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the Bey v. Prator[i], in which the court examined whether deputies violated the Fourth Amendment for arresting the plaintiffs for trespassing at a courthouse when plaintiff’s refused to leave after refusing to submit to security screening. The relevant facts of Bey are as follows:
Plaintiffs, who identify as Moorish Americans, sought to enter the Caddo Parish Courthouse to file documents with the court clerk. Upon arriving at the security-screening station, plaintiffs informed the officers on duty that they wished to enter without passing through the security screening, which, they asserted, would violate their rights under the Fourth Amendment and their rights as Moorish Americans under the United States-Morocco Treaty of Peace and Friendship. The officers informed plaintiffs that they could not enter without being screened and were required to leave the courthouse if they did not agree. After plaintiffs’ repeated refusals to depart, the officers stated they would count to three and, if plaintiffs refused to leave, they would be arrested. They did not depart and were arrested, charged with violating Louisiana Revised Statutes § 14:63.3, “Entry on or remaining in places or on land after being forbidden.”
Plaintiffs were taken to the courthouse basement, searched, and taken to the Caddo Correctional Center. They allege that, during that search, the officers removed their religious headwear, namely, a fez worn by Rene Foley Bey and a turban worn by Julia Foley Bey. Plaintiffs also assert that they were “subjected to mistreatment and harsh conditions” while in custody. They were released early the next day after friends posted bail; the district attorney ultimately dismissed the charges.[ii]
The plaintiffs filed suit in federal district court and alleged numerous claims. The district court granted summary judgment to the deputies based upon qualified immunity. On appeal, the claims examined by the court of appeals were for (1) false arrest under the Fourth Amendment and (2) violation of religious rights by removing and searching the plaintiff’s religious headgear during the arrest.
The court of appeals first noted that, in order to defeat the deputies’ qualified immunity, the plaintiff must allege facts that show (1) that the deputies violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, and (2) that the law was clearly established such that a reasonable officer in the same situation would have known he was violating the constitution. Additionally, the court noted that, for an officer or deputy to be entitled to qualified immunity on a false arrest claim, the officer does not need to have had actual probable cause; rather, if another reasonable officer could have believed probable cause was present, then the officer is entitled to qualified immunity. This is sometimes referred to as “arguable probable cause.” The court explained
[E]ven those officers “who ‘reasonably but mistakenly conclude that probable cause is present’ are entitled to [qualified] immunity.[iii]
I. False Arrest
The court then examined whether the deputies were entitled to qualified immunity regarding the plaintiffs’ false arrest claim. The court first noted the Louisiana statute for which the plaintiffs were arrested. The court stated
Louisiana Revised Statutes § 14:63.3, which states,
No person shall without authority go into or upon or remain in or upon . . . any structure . . . which belongs to another, including public buildings and structures . . . after having been forbidden to do so, either orally or in writing, . . . by any owner, lessee, or custodian of the property or by any other authorized person.[iv]
The court then examined the facts of the case that were relevant to the issue of the alleged false arrest. It is important to note that, for the officers to be entitled to qualified immunity, the facts must be sufficient for a reasonable officer in the same situation to believe that probable cause existed to arrest the plaintiffs. The facts relevant to this issue are (1) the plaintiffs attempted to enter the courthouse without submitting to the security screening process, (2) the deputies were authorized to control entry to the courthouse, (3) the deputies refused to allow the plaintiffs to enter since they refused to submit to the security screening, (4) the deputies told the plaintiffs they had to leave, and (5) the plaintiffs refused to leave, which amounted to remaining in a structure after being forbidden to do so, per the statute. The court then held that, based upon the above facts, the deputies had “at least arguable probable cause” to arrest the plaintiffs for violating Louisiana Code Section 14:63.3. Thus, the plaintiffs failed to meet the first requirement to defeat the deputies’ qualified immunity.
The court of appeals also noted that there were no prior cases that would have put the deputies on notice that arresting the plaintiffs in this circumstance would violate the Fourth Amendment. Thus, the plaintiffs also failed to meet the second requirement to defeat the deputies’ qualified immunity.
The court of appeals also noted that the 1836 United States-Morocco Treaty of Peace and Friendship did not clearly establish “a right for Moorish Americans to enter the courthouse as a port of commerce without screening.”[v] As such, this argument also failed.
II. The Search of the Religious Headgear
The court of appeals also examined whether the deputies’ search of the plaintiffs’ religious headgear violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. The court of appeals stated
When an arrest is made, it is reasonable for the arresting officer to search the person arrested.” Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 762-63, 89 S. Ct. 2034, 23 L. Ed. 2d 685 (1969). Moreover, plaintiffs have pointed to no precedent that abrogates the general “search incident to arrest” rule when religious headwear is involved.[vi]
Thus, the deputies were entitled to summary judgment based on qualified immunity on this claim.
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the decision of the district court granting qualified immunity to the deputies.
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. 21-30489 (5th Cir. Decided November 17, 2022)
[ii] Id. at 1-2
[iii] Id. at 4 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 5
[v] Id. at 6
[vi] Id. at 6-7 (emphasis added)