Marie Gilles was driving a Dodge cargo van containing large barrels when a police officer saw the containers and noticed that the vehicle was "heavily laden" and moved abruptly when passed by a marked police car. The officer ran a computer check and saw that the vehicle was (mistakenly) listed as stolen. After State Troopers arrived and placed Gilles in handcuffs, they discovered that the van was not stolen. The police dog found no drugs. According to Gilles, she remained handcuffed for another hour, and even after a vehicle search found nothing illegal (she was delivering supplies for her business), they brought her to the police station anyway. She was never charged with anything, and brought a Federal lawsuit under Section 1983, the civil rights statute.
The trial court dismissed the case on summary judgment. The Second Circuit (Sessions, Calabresi and Wesley) reinstated the case, ruling in Gilles' favor.
The case is Gilles v. Repicky, decided on December 21, 2007. Here's what the Court of Appeals did:
1. Gilles properly alleged a violation of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. She was seized and detained for two hours after any reasonable suspicion of criminal activity had faded away, during which time she was handcuffed and directed to go to police headquarters. Since investigative detentions must be as brief as possible, this detention was too intrusive. Under the circumstances, Gilles did not reasonably think she was free to leave the scene once the handcuffs were removed, particularly in light of the many police officers present and their direction that she follow them to headquarters. Although she was not formally arrested, her inability to leave was tantamount to an arrest under the Fourth Amendment. Since Gilles was exonerated but detained for no reason, she can seek damages for the unlawful detention.
2. While law enforcement officers are immune from suit if they acted reasonably under the circumstances, there's no immunity here if the jury believes Gilles' story, because any competent police officer would have allowed her to move on when it became clear that she was not committing any crime. Although there may have been reason to stop Gilles' vehicle initially, that does not mean the police can detain her long after the reasonable suspicion of criminal activity disappears.