April 21, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Qualified Immunity Improperly Denied to Officers Whose Conduct Not Clearly Prohibited by Established Law

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Quinn v. Young on Friday, March 13, 2015.

Plaintiffs John Quinn and Lavern Gonzalez were arrested after a sting operation. The Albuquerque Police Department (APD) had organized a sting (called the “Tact Plan”) in which they left a backpack containing alcohol, cigarettes, and a laptop next to an ATM and waited to see who would take it. Quinn, Gonzalez, and their child approached the backpack and conversed. The child took the backpack and the three went to a local diner. The police followed. At the diner, Gonzalez opened the backpack and examined its contents. When she opened the laptop, the APD logo appeared and officers arrested Quinn and Gonzalez. They were detained for approximately two days.

Plaintiffs filed a complaint in New Mexico’s federal district court against the officers, Sergeant Armijo, the APD chief, the APD, four APD supervisors, and the City of Albuquerque (collectively, defendants). Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants’ conduct, as well as the Tact Plan, violated their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful seizure under § 1983. Plaintiffs also alleged entrapment and violation of their substantive due process rights by causing them embarrassment and humiliation. Defendants responded with a summary judgment motion, arguing the officers were entitled to qualified immunity, Plaintiffs had stated no constitutional violation by a municipal employee, and Plaintiffs had stated no actionable claim against the police chief or APD.

The district court granted Defendants’ motion in part and denied it in part, finding Plaintiffs had established a genuine issue of material fact as to whether there was probable cause for their arrest. The district court ruled that the officers should have been on notice that they could not arrest for larceny without probable cause and denied qualified immunity on Plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment claim. Without making requisite findings, the district court denied qualified immunity on all Plaintiffs’ claims, and it did not articulate a basis for ruling on the entrapment claim. The officers timely appealed.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed the Fourth Amendment claim, evaluating whether the officers had probable cause to arrest Plaintiffs for larceny following the sting operation and whether clearly established law at the time of the offense would have placed a reasonable, similarly situated police officer on notice that no probable cause existed. Addressing the second question first, the Tenth Circuit found that any constitutional violation would not have been apparent based on the clearly established law existing at the time of the arrest, and the officers should have been granted qualified immunity. Finding the lack of on-point caselaw significant, the Tenth Circuit evaluated jurisprudence on non-sting larceny cases and found the officers would not have had fair warning that their arrests lacked probable cause. Additionally, two cases decided in 2013—three years after the arrests in issue here—also determined there was a lack of caselaw regarding the constitutionality of sting operations, supporting the Tenth Circuit’s position that the officers would not have had fair warning about the constitutionality of their arrests.

The Tenth Circuit next evaluated the officers’ challenge to the district court’s denial of qualified immunity on the entrapment, malicious prosecution, and due process claims. Recognizing that the district court “painted with broad strokes,” the Tenth Circuit addressed these points. The Tenth Circuit concluded that the entrapment claim was not properly before it on appeal, since Plaintiffs only named the government and not the officers in their entrapment claim, and dismissed it for lack of jurisdiction. The Tenth Circuit likewise exercised its discretion and declined to address the malicious prosecution and due process claims, opting instead for a limited remand with instructions for the district court to explicitly address whether the officers are entitled to qualified immunity on the malicious prosecution and due process claims and then rule on the claims based on the findings.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the summary judgment on the officers’ qualified immunity claim and directed the district court to enter judgment in favor of the officers, dismissed the appeal related to the entrapment claim for lack of jurisdiction, and remanded the malicious prosecution and due process claims with instructions.

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