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Civil Rights – Qualified immunity correctly denied because of disputed facts

Officers sued for wrongful arrest in a case involving employee theft at a Walmart were correctly denied qualified immunity because the record did not provide an objectively reasonable belief in the probable cause required to justify an arrest.

Background

In July 2012, a report of employee thefts of iPods at a Walmart in South Charleston, West Virginia, set off the nearly-eight-year-long chain of events that led to this appeal. Those events include two separate arrests of Gregory Robinson, with charges dismissed both times; Robinson’s civil suit against the arresting officers and the city, claiming in part that he was arrested without probable cause; a district court decision denying the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, concluding that disputed facts precluded an award of qualified immunity to the arresting officers; an appeal of that decision, in which we vacated in part and remanded to the district court and finally, a second district court decision—the one now on appeal—again denying the arresting officers summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds.

Despite this protracted history, the issue at the heart of this appeal is straightforward. Robinson claims that he was arrested twice without probable cause, and the officers who arrested him claim that they are entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. On remand, as in its initial opinion, the district court ruled against the officers, determining that genuine disputes of fact about what evidence the officers knew of at the time of the arrests precluded summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds.

Analysis

The officers’ primary argument is that they are entitled to qualified immunity because an objectively reasonable officer, taking into account not only the surveillance video but also a statement from a Walmart associate (Hartwell), would have believed that there was probable cause to arrest Robinson. Whatever the merits of the officers’ fact-based argument—and we appreciate that the record in this case is lengthy and complex—we lack the jurisdiction to address it in this interlocutory posture.

The district court, applying the correct summary judgment standard and properly viewing the record in the light most favorable to the plaintiff found that the pretrial evidence—including Officer Miller’s own testimony—made it “entirely unclear” whether Miller had knowledge of the Hartwell statement when he arrested Robinson and that the record was similarly unclear as to whether Officers Peterson and Moyer knew of the statement before Robinson’s second arrest.

When it comes to Robinson’s claims that he was arrested without probable cause, in other words, our jurisdiction is limited to one “narrow legal question”: Taking the facts “as the district court gives them to us” and viewed in the light most favorable to Robinson as the plaintiff, are the officers entitled to qualified immunity?

The district court correctly determined that the individual defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity on the current record. It is undisputed that Officers Miller, Peterson and Moyer all had viewed the Walmart surveillance videos by the time of the relevant arrests. But the district court concluded that no “reasonable and prudent person” would believe that Robinson’s “appearance in the second video alone provides a basis to believe that [Robinson] was engaging in criminal activity.” Like the defendants, who conceded the point at oral argument on appeal, we agree.

The video does show, as the district court acknowledged, Robinson at the scene and in close proximity to Hartwell while Hartwell takes iPods from the Walmart display case. It may well be, as the district court supposed, that Robinson’s behavior as shown on the video—continuously and steadfastly “flipping through the pages of [a] binder” while Hartwell removes the iPods, would meet the lower standard of reasonable suspicion, allowing for certain investigative steps short of arrest. But standing alone, it does not give rise to an objectively reasonable belief in the probable cause required to justify an arrest. Because of our limited jurisdiction on this interlocutory appeal, that essentially ends the matter.

The defendants also seek review of the district court’s decision on two additional fronts, challenging the court’s denial of their summary judgment motion with respect to Robinson’s § 1983 failure-to-train claim against the city and Robinson’s state-law claims against the individual officers. At this stage of the litigation, however, that challenge is premature.

Affirmed in part and dismissed in part.

Robinson v. Miller (Pamela Harris, J.) Case No. 18-1954. Feb. 6, 2020. From S.D. W.Va. (Thomas E. Johnston, C.J.) Drannon L. Adkins for Appellants, Alexander D. McLaughlin for Appellee. 18 pp.

 

 


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