Deputy denied qualified immunity after he misidentified an innocent man by name in his report


 Melton v. Phillips, No. 15-10604 ( 5th Cir. September 14,2016).

This is a qualified immunity case where the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit held a sheriff’s deputy was not entitled to immunity.

The plaintiff, Michael David Melton, spent sixteen days in county jail in connection with an assault he did not commit apparently because he shared the same first and last name (but not middle) with the true assailant. In June 2009, Phillips, then a deputy with the Hunt County Sheriff’s Office, interviewed the victim of an assault. The victim identified the attacker as his wife’s boyfriend at the time, a man named Michael Melton, apparently without providing the assailant’s middle name. Phillips then prepared an offense report and submitted it to the Sheriff’s Office. The report specifically identified the Plaintiff, Michael David Melton, as the suspected assailant but the true assailant was named Michael Glenn Melton. After he submitted his report, Phillips had no further involvement with the case.  The Plaintiff was later arrested under an arrest warrant and incarcerated. The complaint expressly stated that it was based upon Phillips’s offense report and provided no other basis for the information contained therein.   After charges were dismissed, the Plaintiff sued Phillips. In support of his allegations, the Plaintiff submitted an affidavit from a former Sheriff’s Office employee, who opined that Phillips likely used a computer database to identify the Plaintiff entering the name “Michael Melton” and conducted no further investigation as to whether the PID generated result matched the person identified by the victim. Phillips filed a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, which the trial court denied.

The court first held that simply because Phillips did not sign the affidavit in support of the arrest warrant does not mean he escapes liability. The affiant based his information on Phillip’s report. A “governmental official violates the Fourth Amendment when he deliberately or recklessly provides false, material information for use in [the] affidavit.” A government official who merely provides information that leads police to seek a warrant is not necessarily in a position to “fully assess probable cause questions” and therefore he or she does not bear liability.  In contrast, an officer who deliberately or recklessly provides false or misleading information for use in an affidavit can be liable. In denying Phillips’s motion for summary judgment, the district court found that there was a genuine dispute of fact as to whether Phillips was reckless in identifying the Plaintiff as the suspected assailant. The 5th Circuit held it lacks jurisdiction to review the district court’s finding of a genuine fact dispute as to Phillips’s recklessness. As a result, the denial of qualified immunity is affirmed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The Panel includes Circuit Judge Dennis, Circuit Judge Elrod and Circuit Judge Graves. Circuit Judge Dennis delivered the opinion of the court. Attorney for the Appellant: Robert Scott Davis, Tyler, TX .  Attorney for the Appellee: Jason Andrew Duff, Greenville, TX.

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