Dubious evidence of probable cause still enough to protect deputies under qualified immunity.

Crostley v. Lamar County, Texas No. 12-40288 (5th Cir. May 29, 2013)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of qualified immunity and a court’s refusal to allow a pleading amendment in a §1983 case. After a night of drinking beer and smoking marijuana, Plaintiffs were investigated and charged with the murder of their companion.  Eventually the charges were dropped and Plaintiffs brought a civil rights action seeking damages for injuries they suffered as a result of their nine-month imprisonment.  Their suit named Lamar County, Texas, and two investigators.  The District Court dismissed the County on its FRCP 12(b)(6) motion.  While the investigators’ motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity was pending, Plaintiffs moved for leave to amend their complaint to re-name the County and add a Department of Public Safety officer.  The trial court denied the Plaintiffs’ requests and granted the investigators’ summary judgment.  Plaintiffs appealed.

The court went through a long rendition of facts including various steps taken in the investigation. The Fifth Circuit then first addressed the Plaintiffs’ request to amend their pleadings and re-name the County, even though it had been dismissed with prejudice. Because the order dismissing the county was interlocutory, and there had been no severance or certification of final judgment, the order can be amended and the court should have allowed Plaintiffs to re-name the County.  Evidence of additional County policies did not come to light until after the dismissal.  This part of the opinion is of significance to litigators but not so much for general counsel.

The court then went on to hold that the deputies actions were not “objectively unreasonable” in believing there was probable cause to arrest the Plaintiffs. However, the court did provide specific examples in the record noting such information was conclusory and “of dubious quality.” The court reiterated its dislike and distrust of form or conclusory affidavits to support probable cause. However, the deficiency of any one piece of evidence used to demonstrate probable cause does not, on its own, mean that probable cause did not exist. Under the totality of the circumstances, it was not objectively unreasonable for officers to believe probable cause existed. Further, for the state law claim of malicious prosecution, the officers were entitled to official immunity. The order granting their immunity is affirmed.

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