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Civil Rights — Qualified Immunity Reversed for Police Officers

Graham v. Gagnon (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-132-16, 29 pp.) (Floyd, J.) No. 15-1521, July 27, 2016; USDC at Alexandria, Va. (Ellis, J.) 4th Cir.

Holding: The 4th Circuit reverses summary judgment for defendant police officers in a woman’s suit alleging the officers violated her Fourth Amendment rights by arresting her without probable cause for obstruction of justice for spending some minutes inside her own home trying to talk her son into surrendering to police, who were on her doorstep with a warrant; we conclude it would have been clear to reasonable officers in appellees’ position that they lacked probable cause to arrest plaintiff.

We agree with plaintiff that the district court erred in holding that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. An arresting officer is not automatically immunized from suit merely because the officer successfully requested an arrest warrant first.

If the officers’ decision to request a warrant for plaintiff’s arrest was outside the range of professional competence expected of an officer – that is, if it was objectively unreasonable to conclude there was probable cause that plaintiff violated Virginia’s obstruction statute – then the officers are not immune from suit.

By comparing plaintiff’s known conduct to the conduct proscribed by the Virginia statute, Va. Code § 18.2-460(A), we can assess the reasonableness of the officers’ decision to seek plaintiff’s arrest.

For summary judgment purposes: 1) plaintiff told the officers she wanted to speak with her son and get him; 2) she walked into the house and then returned in about a minute, telling the officers she was talking to her son and trying to get him to come out; and 3) plaintiff again walked into the house and within another minute or so her son was walking into view of the officers at the front door where he was taken into custody.

If the officer believed plaintiff was encouraging her son to flee, that belief was, at best, a hunch and a mere hunch that illegal activity is afoot is not probable cause.

There are undoubtedly still gray areas at the boundaries of Va. Code § 18.2-460(A), meaning that officers enforcing it will at times face close cases. This was not one of those cases. Given plaintiff’s known conduct, it would have been clear to reasonable officers in defendants’ position that they lacked probable cause to arrest plaintiff for obstruction of justice. We therefore reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the officers. The case is remanded to the district court for that court to consider plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.

Reversed and remanded.

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