Monday, May 12, 2014

No false arrest claim in domestic violence case

False arrest claims are hard to pursue in federal court. The Supreme Court over the years has set out rules that allow officers to win summary judgment if their actions were objectively reasonable, despite their subjective motives against the plaintiff. There is also the qualified immunity problem. In this case, these factors result in the dismissal of a false arrest case arising from a domestic dispute caused by an intoxicated wife.

The case is Betts v. Shearman, decided on May 2. Betts and Shearman were married. Shearman was drunk and also high on drugs when she became abusive toward Betts, who locked himself in room for safety. Shearman then called the police and accused Betts of assaulting her. The police came to the house, forcibly entered the spare bedroom where Betts was sleeping and arrested him. All charges against Betts were later dropped, and he then sued the police and his Shearman, now his ex-wife.

Like I said, the police enjoy many protections when they are sued for false arrest. It is clear that Betts got the shaft, but he still has to prove that the police lacked probable cause to arrest him. Even without probable cause, the police win if their actions were objectively reasonable at the time. The latter equation (also known as "arguable probable cause") is part of the qualified immunity defense, which gives the police the benefit of the doubt in tough situations.

The Court of Appeals (Walker, Winter and Wesley) summarizes Betts's claim: "Officers Rodriguez and Doe responded to a domestic disturbance based on Shearman’s report over the phone that she had been assaulted and found Betts locked in a bedroom. Betts alleged, and now argues, that the officers had reason to doubt Shearman’s credibility because she was visibly intoxicated and had made false accusations against Betts in the past, and because there was a lack of physical evidence to support an assault charge."

Here is why the Rule 12 dismissal is affirmed: the wife's false accusations in the past do not show the police lacked probable cause because the lawsuit does not allege that the police knew about her prior false accusations when Betts was arrested. The fact that Shearman did not display any signs of physical abuse does not mean the police lacked probable cause; the police are not required "to finally determine guilt through a weighing of the evidence." While Betts says his wife was obviously high and strung out, the lawsuit does not allege how the arresting officers would have known this when Shearman called the police. "Even assuming that the officers were aware that Sherman was intoxicated, absent other indicia raising concerns reliability, the officers were not unreasonable in surmising that an office had been committed by Betts."

Betts also claims the police coached Shearman to concoct false charges against him. This claim also fails under the Iqbal plausibility test. The reasoning on this issue is interesting, shedding some light on what it takes to make out a "plausible" claim:

Betts alleges that Officers Rodriguez and Doe, upon arriving at the apartment he shared with Shearman, “assisted Shearman in making a false allegation and . . . coached her in fabricating a contrived version of the events to justify a baseless and false arrest.” Betts, however, also alleges that Shearman initially phoned the police and made the same “false” accusations that, among other things, Betts assaulted her. The original accusation without the possibility of any police complicity was sufficient to sustain the arrest, thereby undermining the claim that it was the police whose false accusation denied Betts a fair trial. Moreover, it is not plausible that, without more, a complaining witness who had originally conceived of false accusations on her own accord also required “coaching” in making substantially the same accusations again.
What we have is a failed claim under the Iqbal plausibility test because the plaintiff's claims about the police conspiracy are contradicted by the facts that he necessarily had to plead in the complaint. Ten years ago, pre-Iqbal, this might not have mattered. It matters now.

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