On December 28, 2022, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the Griffin v. Ventriere[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to false arrest and malicious prosecution.  The relevant facts of Griffin, taken directly from the case, are as follows:

Trevor Glover reported to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office that two men fired handguns at him as he walked towards his apartment building on April 27, 2016. Ventriere responded to the scene and corroborated Glover’s story. At the scene, Glover advised Officer Robert Fischer that “he has never met or saw either of the men who attacked him, and they did not say anything or attempt to take any of his possessions.” Glover expressed his belief that the two men were friends of Gino Nicholas, his girlfriend’s brother, who had been shot and killed, and that Nicholas’s friends thought Glover was friendly with Nicholas’s shooter. Glover described the perpetrators as two black men, one under six feet tall and the other six feet and two inches tall.

Several hours after the initial interviews, Glover notified Ventriere that he remembered more information and could identify the two suspects. Glover then identified Appellant Griffin as the suspect who shot at him at close range. It is undisputed that Griffin is six feet and nine inches tall. Thereafter, Glover identified Griffin in a photograph lineup, stating he was “absolutely sure” Griffin was the individual who shot at him. Glover also informed Ventriere of a text message Griffin sent to Glover’s girlfriend on April 25, 2016, in which Griffin indicated that Glover refused to look him in the eye at the night club the previous day.

The arrest affidavit that led to Griffin’s arrest warrant did not include Glover’s initial statement verbatim, nor the height discrepancy, but did state, at first “Mr. Glover was unable to provide any further information at that time.” The affidavit stated that Glover was able to remember the shooters after the adrenaline and pain wore off. It also included that Glover had selected Griffin from a photograph lineup, the text messages Griffin sent to Glover’s girlfriend, and an eyewitness account that the shooters fled in a Dodge Charger. A Florida judge signed an arrest warrant and Griffin was subsequently arrested by a warrant unit.

During his post arrest interview, Griffin admitted that he had rented a Dodge Charger and did not know if he returned it before or after the shooting occurred. Ventriere confirmed the following week, based on information he was unable to obtain the night he interviewed Griffin, that the car was returned before the shooting. After FLDE testing of the weapon Griffin had on his person at the time of arrest, it was confirmed it was not the same gun used in the shooting. Griffin gave an alibi that surveillance video would show he was at his parents’ house at the time the shooting occurred, but Ventriere could not remember what he did with the information Griffin gave him about his parents’ surveillance camera. Ventriere completed the investigation after he received search warrants for Griffin’s phone days later. Griffin was later released.[ii]

Griffin then filed a lawsuit against the deputies and the sheriff alleging, among other things, false arrest and malicious prosecution under both the Fourth Amendment and Florida law.  The district court granted summary judgment based on qualified immunity to the deputies and sheriff because it found probable cause existed for Griffin’s warrant.  Griffin appealed the dismissal of his case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal, Griffin raised two arguments.  First, he argued summary judgment was not appropriate because there was a genuine dispute of fact regarding whether a judge would have signed the arrest warrant if the omitted information had been included.  Second, he argued that qualified immunity was not appropriate because the deputy withheld exonerating evidence from the arrest warrant and failed to investigate that evidence.

The court of appeals first discussed qualified immunity.  When an officer or deputy is conducting a discretionary function, such as conducting an investigation and deciding to apply for a warrant and make an arrest, he is entitled to qualified immunity.  To overcome the deputy’s qualified immunity, the plaintiff must prove (1) the deputy violated a constitutional right, and (2) the right was clearly established such that another reasonable deputy in the same situation would have known he was violating the plaintiff’s rights.

The court then set out to examine the plaintiff’s arguments in this appeal.  Griffin’s first argument was that summary judgment was not appropriate because there is a material issue of fact as to whether a judge would have signed the arrest warrant if Deputy Ventriere included the omitted information, particularly that the victim originally stated he did not know the men that shot at him and that the men were 6’-6’2” tall.  In other words, Griffin wanted a jury to decide whether the omission of the information violated his rights.

However, the court of appeals discussed the fact that the decision on this matter was “reviewing court’s” decision.  The court of appeals stated that the Florida standard and the federal constitutional standards for this issue are the same.  Both standards of review are that “the reviewing court must determine whether the omitted material …[if included]… “would have defeated probable cause, and that the “reviewing court must determine” if the omission was “intentional or reckless” such that it amounts to “deception.”[iii]  Thus, this was not an issue for a jury to decide but rather it is a matter reserved for the reviewing court.  The court also stated

Further, the prohibition of police officers knowingly making false statements in an arrest affidavit applies when the resulting affidavit is “insufficient to establish probable cause” without an officer’s false statements. United States v. Kirk, 781 F.2d 1498, 1502 (11th Cir. 1986).[iv]

Simply put, if an officer puts an incorrect or false statement in a warrant affidavit, or omits information, and that information is removed or included, if probable cause still exists to support the warrant, there is no constitutional violation.  The court noted that, in Griffin’s case, the warrant affidavit included enough information to support probable cause and even if the omitted information was included, probable cause was still present.  Thus, the plaintiff’s argument failed.

Griffin’s second argument was that qualified immunity was not appropriate because other reasonable officers or deputies in this situation could not have believed that probable cause existed.

The court then explained

To establish a federal malicious prosecution claim under § 1983, Griffin 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 v. KESLER, 323 F.3d 872, 881 (11th Cir. 2003). The elements of malicious prosecution are: “(1) a criminal prosecution instituted or continued by the present defendant; (2) with malice and without probable cause; (3) that terminated in the plaintiff accused’s favor; and (4) caused damage to the plaintiff accused.” Id. at 882.[v]

Griffin argued that Detective Venriere’s disregard of the victim’s initial statement that he never met the shooters and the detective’s reliance on the victim’s subsequent statement where he identified Griffin as the shooter are sufficient to defeat probable cause.

The court of appeals noted that to succeed in a malicious prosecution claim, the plaintiff

must also establish “(1) that the legal process justifying his seizure was constitutionally infirm and (2) that his seizure would not otherwise be justified without legal process.[vi]

Here, the process whereby the detective obtained the arrest warrant was determined to be valid and supported by probable cause, based on the experience and explanations of the detective.

Lastly, Griffin also argued that qualified immunity was improper because the detective failed to investigate readily available evidence that exonerated Griffin.  The court of appeals noted that this evidence was not discovered until Griffin was already arrested under a valid warrant and the additional evidence was discovered because the detectives continued their investigation.  The court stated the continued investigation was conducted in a timely manner.  Thus, this argument also failed.

The court of appeals then affirmed the grant of summary judgment and qualified immunity in this case.

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. 22-11197 (11th Cir.  Decided December 28, 2022 Unpublished)

[ii] Id. at 1-4

[iii] Id. at 6

[iv] Id. (emphasis added)

[v] Id. at 7-8 (emphasis added)

[vi] Id. at 8

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