U.S. 5th Circuit holds deputy entitled to qualified immunity on state-created-danger claims, but not wrongful arrest claims

Keller v. Fleming, 18-60081(5th Cir. July 23, 2019)

In this §1983 case, the U.S. 5th Circuit reversed the denial of an officer’s qualified immunity defense for a state-created-danger claim but affirmed denial based on unlawful arrest claims.

Gerald Simpson was struck and killed by a motor vehicle as he walked along a Mississippi highway in darkness after Simpson had been dropped off at the county line by Sheriff’s Deputy Darrin Fleming.  Simpson was originally stopped while walking down the roadway, but his speech was unintelligible.  The Plaintiffs alleged Deputy Fleming acted pursuant to an Attala County custom of picking up those viewed as vagrants and dropping them off in neighboring jurisdictions to rid the county of vagrants. The submitted evidence establishes Deputy Fleming put Simpson in the backseat of his vehicle and asked him where he resided, but Simpson was unable to articulate where he lived and merely pointed west on Highway 12, in the direction of Durant, Mississippi. Fleming drove Simpson in that direction to the point he reached the end of Attala jurisdiction and let Simpson out.  Fleming was not aware Simpson had recently been released from a state hospital after twelve years of confinement for certain developmental disabilities, including a speech impediment. The family sued Fleming and the County and Fleming filed a motion for summary judgment arguing qualified immunity.  The motion was granted in part and denied in part. Fleming appealed.

The Fourth Amendment generally prohibits an officer from seizing and detaining an individual without “probable cause.” A police officer may approach a person for purposes of investigating possible criminal behavior (i.e. Terry stop). The court determined a reasonable person in Simpson’s position would not have felt free to leave. The transport was also not reasonable given the circumstances. The seizure was not for Terry stop purposes and was significantly more intrusive than a brief detention for identification or investigatory purposes.  It also was law previously established which Deputy Fleming should have known. As a result, it was proper to deny qualified immunity for the Fourth Amendment claim.

Next, for Fourteenth Amendment purposes, as a general matter, a State does not have an affirmative duty to protect an individual from violence by private actors. An exception exists in other circuits for a “state-created-danger” theory where the entity and plaintiff are in a special relationship. However, a “special relationship” only arises when a person is involuntarily confined or otherwise restrained against his will pursuant to a governmental order.  The law was not clearly defined at the time to allow Deputy Fleming to know it might apply. The Fifth Circuit has never recognized this “state-created-danger” exception. As a result, the Fourteenth Amendment claims should have been dismissed. Finally, Plaintiffs have not demonstrated a clearly established substantive due process right on the facts they allege.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Judge Stewar, Judges Willett and Dennis.  Opinion by Justice Dennis.