July 17, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Summary Judgment in Favor of State Trooper and State Based on § 1983 and State Law Claims Reversed in Part

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Courtney v. State of Oklahoma on Monday, July 15, 2013.

On October 25, 2010, Oklahoma State Trooper Smith stopped Jason Courtney for speeding. Smith observed Courtney acting nervous and asked Courtney to answer questions, which Courtney initially declined. Courtney had a gun in the trunk and after questioning was ultimately arrested for possession of a firearm after being formerly convicted of a felony. No charges were filed and Courtney’s gun was not returned to him until almost a year after it was seized.

Courtney brought suit against Smith and the State under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as well as state law claims. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Defendants on all of Courtney’s claims. Regarding Courtney’s § 1983 claims, the court concluded Smith was entitled to qualified immunity. The court concluded the State was immune from Courtney’s state-law claims under the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act. Courtney appealed.

When a defendant asserts qualified immunity at summary judgment, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that: (1) the defendant violated a constitutional right and (2) the constitutional right was clearly established. In determining whether a right is clearly established, the dispositive inquiry is whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted. Based on what the record showed as Courtney’s behavior during the traffic stop, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not err in concluding Trooper Smith was entitled to qualified immunity.

However, given the facts known to him at the time of the arrest, the Tenth Circuit held Smith lacked probable cause to arrest Courtney for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. While Oklahoma law prohibits the possession of firearms by a person previously convicted of a felony, a juvenile adjudication over ten years old does not qualify as an underlying felony. At the time Smith arrested Courtney, Smith knew the report he found on Courtney referred to an incident that occurred when Courtney was a minor and that it was over ten years old.

As to Courtney’s state-law claims, having rejected the district court’s conclusion that Smith had probable cause to arrest Courtney, the Tenth Circuit necessarily rejected its corollary conclusion that the State was entitled to governmental immunity.

For the foregoing reasons, the district court’s order granting summary judgment to Smith and the State is affirmed in part, and reversed in part. The district court’s grant of qualified immunity to Smith as to Courtney’s claims related to the extension of the traffic stop is affirmed. The district court’s grant of qualified immunity to Smith as to Courtney’s claims of unlawful arrest without probable cause is reversed. The district court’s grant of summary judgment to the State on Courtney’s state law claims are reversed.

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