On December 29, 2022, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the Braun v. Vill. of Palatine[i], which serves as instructive regarding the liability for false arrest after a breath and blood test return negative for alcohol and drugs.  The relevant facts of Braun, taken directly from the case, are as follows:

In September 2017 Braun was living in Chicago and working as an overnight pharmacist in suburban Cook County. He has a complicated medical history, including traumatic brain injury, seizures, anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. After completing his seventh consecutive ten-hour overnight shift on September 11, Braun felt ill and slept at his parents’ house in Park Ridge until the late afternoon. He then visited his girlfriend’s condo in Palatine where he tried to eat some food but vomited. Once his girlfriend went to sleep, he left to drive home to Chicago.

The next thing Braun remembers is waking up to two police officers shining flashlights into his car. He had crashed into a telephone pole. Although he would later discover that a seizure caused the accident, at the time he could not describe how the crash had happened. Officer Licari, the first officer to respond, opened the door to check on Braun. Initially Braun told the officer that he did not feel well and that he “need[ed] medical attention.” But a few minutes later, he said he was “fine.”

Officer Licari did not smell alcohol during this interaction, but Braun’s behavior and appearance caused him to suspect that Braun was intoxicated. The officer observed that Braun was confused, slurred his speech, struggled with balance, and had bloodshot and glassy eyes. Braun made the odd statements that he was “not in an accident” and that he “live[d] in Chicago-Miami.” And he told the officers that he had consumed “one beer with [his brother] Scott” earlier that evening.

Palatine police officers do not carry portable Breathalyzer devices, so Officer Licari administered standardized field sobriety tests. These included the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, which assessed Braun’s eye movement in response to an object being waved near his face; the walk-and-turn test, which had him take a certain number of heel-to-toe steps before turning and returning; and the one-leg-stand test, which required him to lift one leg off the ground and count out loud. Officer Sopcak, who arrived shortly after Licari, asked Braun to recite the alphabet without singing. Officer Licari reported that Braun failed all these tests.

The officers at the scene asked Braun if he was injured, needed medical care, or had any medical conditions. He replied “no” to all three questions and told them that he was “fine.” Braun neither informed the officers of his various medical conditions nor wore a medical bracelet or other indicator of his conditions. And although he was confused, struggled with balance, and had bloodshot eyes, Braun did not exhibit any physical injuries. As a result, Officer Licari concluded that he did not require medical assistance, so the officers waved off an ambulance that had been dispatched to the scene.

After the field sobriety tests, Officer Licari arrested Braun and took him to the police station for a Breathalyzer test. The test results did not show the presence of alcohol; the device registered 0.000. But based on the other signs of intoxication, Officer Licari took Braun to Northwest Community Hospital for a “DUI kit,” which uses blood and urine samples to test for the presence of “volatiles” (like alcohol) and drugs. A nurse asked Braun if he had any injuries or needed to see a doctor; he said “no” to both questions.

After the samples were collected, Officer Licari took Braun back to the station to finish the booking process. Braun was released from custody when booking was completed, but he suffered another seizure while still at the station and was rushed to the hospital.

The test results from the DUI kit came in months later. They showed that at the time of his arrest, Braun had no alcohol or drugs in his system other than diphenhydramine, which is a central nervous system depressant. In December 2017 the charges against him were dismissed.[ii]

Braun subsequently filed suit against the officer for false arrest under the Fourth Amendment, as well as under state law, and numerous other claims.  This article will only discuss the false arrest claims under the Fourth Amendment and Illinois law.

Ultimately, the district court granted summary judgment for the officer and dismissed the false arrest claim under both federal and state law.  Braun appealed the dismissal to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court of appeals first stated

Braun’s claims for false arrest arise under the Fourth Amendment and § 1983, and also under Illinois law. To prevail on a Fourth Amendment false-arrest claim, “a plaintiff must show that there was no probable cause for his arrest.” Neita v. City of Chicago, 830 F.3d 494, 497 (7th Cir. 2016). Put slightly differently, “[t]he existence of probable cause to arrest is an absolute defense to any § 1983 claim against a police officer for false arrest.Jump v. Village of Shorewood, 42 F.4th 782, 788 (7th Cir. 2022) (quotation marks omitted). The existence of probable cause also defeats a false-arrest claim under Illinois law, see McBride v. Grice, 576 F.3d 703, 706-07 (7th Cir. 2009), so we analyze these claims together.[iii]

Thus, if the officer had probable cause to arrest Braun, the false arrest claims under both the Fourth Amendment and state law should be dismissed.

Next, the court of appeals discussed probable cause and stated

Probable cause to arrest exists “when the facts and circumstances that are known to [the officer] reasonably support a belief that the individual has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.” Holmes v. Village of Hoffman Estates, 511 F.3d 673, 679 (7th Cir. 2007). This is a “common-sense inquiry requiring only a probability of criminal activity”; probable cause exists “whenever an officer … has enough information to warrant a prudent person to believe criminal conduct has occurred.Leaver v. Shortess, 844 F.3d 665, 669 (7th Cir. 2016) (quoting Whitlock v. Brown, 596 F.3d 406, 411 (7th Cir. 2010)).[iv]

The court then examined the facts of the case to determine if probable cause existed to arrest Braun for DUI.  The court noted the following relevant facts: (1) Braun was involved in a single car accident late at night; (2) Braun was confused, had slurred speech, bloodshot, glassy eyes, and had difficulty maintaining his balance; (3) Braun struggled to perform the field sobriety evaluations; (4) Braun made bizarre statements such as “he was not an accident”; (5) Braun stated that he lived in Chicago, Miami; and (6) Braun stated that he had consumed a beer earlier.  The court of appeals stated “Braun’s behavior and the circumstances of his accident easily provided probable cause” to believe he was “driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs or some combination of intoxicating substances.”[v]

Braun argued that his crash had an innocent explanation, particularly a medical emergency.  To this, the court stated

Nor was probable cause eliminated because an innocent explanation for the crash and Braun’s behavior emerged later. There is no requirement that “the officer’s belief be correct or even more likely true than false, so long as it is reasonable.” Qian v. Kautz, 168 F.3d 949, 953 (7th Cir. 1999). And “the fact that the officer later discovers additional evidence unknown to [him] at the time of the arrest is irrelevant to whether probable cause existed at the crucial time.” Bailey v. City of Chicago, 779 F.3d 689, 695 (7th Cir. 2015) (quoting Qian, 168 F.3d at 953-54)). Here, Officer Licari encountered a man who was in a single-car accident at about midnight, was confused and slurred his words, had bloodshot eyes and difficulty balancing, and struggled with several sobriety tests. The officer did not need to eliminate every innocent explanation for a situation that had many hallmarks of a DUI crash.[vi]

Additionally, the court noted that Braun never told the officers that he was experiencing a medical emergency or had any medical issues, despite the fact that the officers asked him such questions.

Braun argued that, even if probable cause existed at the time of his initial arrest, after he registered 0.000 on the Breathalyzer, the probable cause evaporated and he should have been released.  The court of appeals explained

[T]he discovery of subsequent information that was unknown to Officer Licari at the time of the arrest does not speak to whether he had probable cause to arrest Braun. In assessing the legality of Braun’s arrest at the scene of the crash, what matters is what Officer Licari knew then—not what he found out later.[vii]

Furthermore, the court noted that the indications of DUI were still present, despite the negative alcohol test.  Thus, the officer had probable cause to believe Braun may be under the influence of drugs or other intoxicating substances.  In support of this conclusion the court noted that they have previously held

[T]hat an individual’s successful completion of “one or more field sobriety tests … does not negate probable cause when other circumstances give rise to a reasonable belief that the individual is intoxicated“. . .

Put another way, even if we assume that the Breathalyzer result should have informed Officer Licari that Braun had no alcohol in his system, there was still probable cause to believe that Braun had committed the crime of driving under the influence of drugs or another intoxicating substance that “render[ed] [him] incapable of driving safely.” [viii]

Therefore, the court of appeals held that probable cause existed for Braun’s arrest and affirmed the grant of summary judgment for the officer.

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.

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Citations

[i] No. 20-3227 (7th Cir.  Decided December 29, 2022 )

[ii] Id. at 1-3

[iii] Id. at 10-11 (emphasis added)

[iv] Id. at 11 (emphasis added)

[v] Id.

[vi] Id. at 12-13 (emphasis added)

[vii] Id. at 15 (emphasis added)

[viii]Id. 15-16 (citing Seiser v. City of Chicago, 762 F.3d 647 (7th Cir. 2014))(emphasis added)

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