City, police chief, and officer entitled to immunity from suspect’s false arrest claims.

John Flowers v. City of Diboll, et al, NO. 12-12-00107-CV (Tex. App – Tyler, March 22, 2013).

This case involves governmental and qualified immunity of the City and a police officer arising out of an arrest of Flowers. Flowers did not get along with the uncle (Cook) of a child over which he possessed primary custody.  After leaving a baseball game, Cook drove his truck alongside Flower’s and the vehicles collided.  After an investigation, Officer Baker arrested Flowers for deadly conduct for intentionally striking the other vehicle but Flowers was never charged. He then sued the City, Baker, and the police chief for false arrest.   The trial court granted the defendants’ summary judgment motion and Flowers appealed. The Twelfth Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal.

Qualified immunity shields a police officer if a reasonable officer could have believed that the action taken was lawful in light of clearly established law and the information the officer possessed.  While the court chided Baker’s affidavit in support of an arrest warrant for being nothing more than a form affidavit, the court ultimately held that it is the facts, not the affidavit, which determines if probable cause existed to make an arrest.  Even though evidence conflicted in the investigation, a reasonable officer could have believed probable cause existed.  And since a warrant was not needed for a misdemeanor arrest, no constitutional or tort violations occurred. Flowers also failed to establish any inadequate policies existed which directly caused a constitutional violation.

An important point to take away from this case, other than the obvious ones, is the description of the flaws the court found in Baker’s affidavit.  The court explained that while a misdemeanor arrest does not require a warrant, any search warrant must be supported by a sufficient affidavit and Baker’s would have failed if that were the case. The court frowned on the use of form affidavits and held that a proper affidavit must explain the foundation of any beliefs formed by the officer.

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City not liable for emergency demolition of building; determination of “emergency” entitled to deference.

RBII,L.P. v City of San Antonio, No. 11–50626 (5th Cir. April 23, 2013).

This is a structural standards case where the City of San Antonio demolished a substandard building but failed to provide notice within a specified time period.  Due to the extreme hazards of the building it was recommended for immediate demolition.  The court allowed a trial to the jury on the Fourteenth Amendment claims of violating procedural due process (due to a lack of notice) and Fourth Amendment unreasonable search and seizure. Jury held for RBII in the amount of $27,000.00 and the City appealed.

The 5th Circuit held where the City acts to abate an emergency threat to public safety, postdeprivation process satisfies the Constitution’s procedural due process requirement.  In determining if predeprivation notice is required the “key question” is not whether there “was actually a danger” but whether the City had reasonable grounds for believing that a danger existed.  If so, the determination requires deference.  RBII focused on the predeprivation analysis and did not assert the postdeprivation process was inadequate.  Further, the unreasonable seizure elements are tied to whether due process was followed in order to determine the “reasonableness” of the seizure.

The City argued the jury instructions were inadequate under the law as it should have noted the City’s determination of an emergency required deference and the City’s compliance with its own procedural ordinances is proof of reasonableness. The 5th Circuit held the trial court “improperly cast the central factual dispute as whether or not the Structure [actually] posed an immediate danger to the public, when the issue should have been whether the City acted arbitrarily or abused its discretion in determining that the Structure presented an immediate danger.” In other words, the 5th Circuit agreed with the City.  This instruction affected both the 14th and 4th Amendment claims. As a result the court vacated the judgment and remanded the case instructing the trial court to reconsider the City’s motion for judgment as a matter of law under the trial record.

This is a good case to review for the evidentiary burden shifting analysis and when deference to the City’s determinations is proper in these types of cases.

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U.S. Supreme Court holds warrantless blood draws invalid absent special exigent factors

Missouri v McNeely, 569 U. S. ____ , No. 11–1425, Slip op. (April 17, 2013)

This is a U.S. Supreme Court case holding that metabolizing of alcohol is not a per se exigency that justifies a warrantless blood draw.  In this multi-concurring in part and dissenting in part case, a Missouri police officer stopped McNeely’s truck and observed signs of intoxication. When McNeely refused a breathalyzer exam the officer took him to a nearby hospital to obtain a blood test, which was obtained without a warrant and without consent.  McNeely moved to suppress the blood results during his DWI trial which the trial court granted and the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed.  Citing to Schmerber v. California, 384 U. S. 757 (1966), the Court held that a warrant­less blood draw requires more than the mere dissipation of blood-alcohol evidence.  The exigency allowing for such a draw depends heavily on a variety of “special factors” of which the metabolizing of alcohol can be part of the analysis, but cannot be the only part.  Since this was a “routine DWI” case with no additional special factors, the Court affirmed the suppression of the blood test.   The Court emphasized that trial courts must look to the totality of the circumstances in determining if a warrantless blood draw is justified. The context of blood testing is different in critical respects from other destruction-of-evidence cases in which the police are truly confronted with a “‘now or never’” situation.  When the officer lacks sufficient time to obtain a warrant due to exigent circumstances, such as seeing suspects to medical treatment after an accident or delays due to overriding public concerns of safety, warrantless blood draws may be justified.  However, when the officer has sufficient time to obtain a warrant under normal circumstances (such as using technology or officer assistance to contact a magistrate while transport is occurring) and no other special factors exists, a warrantless blood draw is not authorized under the Fourth Amendment.

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