July 17, 2019

Archives for February 2, 2016

Tenth Circuit: Officer Lacked Reasonable Basis to Effect Felony Stop Based on Mistaken Information

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Maresca v. Bernalillo County on Thursday, October 22, 2015.

Stephen Maresca, a former police officer, and his family were returning from a family hike when they were pulled over by Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Deputies J. Fuentes, G. Grundhoffer, and four other officers. Officer Fuentes, who had completed her training as a new officer approximately two months earlier, initiated the stop. Mr. Maresca waved to Officers Fuentes and Grundhoffer as he drove by, and Officer Fuentes randomly decided to follow the Marescas’ truck—a red 2004 Ford F-150 pickup. She attempted to type their license plate number into her onboard computer, but got a digit wrong and received a message that the vehicle, a maroon 2009 Chevrolet four-door sedan, had been stolen.

Without double-checking the license plate number or verifying that the information on her screen matched the Marescas’ vehicle, she initiated a “felony stop.” She called the Marescas actual license plate number into dispatch, stating that the vehicle was stolen, but did not wait for dispatch to verify the information before initiating the felony stop. As a result of this call, other officers were dispatched to assist. For the felony stop, she and Officer Grundhoffer, who was following her in a different vehicle, stood behind the open doors of their vehicles with weapons drawn and shouted orders at the Marescas. She ordered Mr. Maresca to turn off the truck, throw his keys out of the window, exit the truck with his hands in the air, lift his shirt above his waistband so she could check for weapons, and lay on the highway on his stomach. She repeated this procedure with Mrs. Maresca. The Marescas complied fully with Officer Fuentes’ commands. While they were laying on the ground, Mrs. Maresca informed the officers that there were children and a dog in the truck. Mr. Maresca also told them that there had to be a mistake and to check everything again. The officers ignored the Marescas.

The officers ordered the boys out of the car the same way as Mr. and Mrs. Maresca, and ordered 9-year-old M.M. to exit the vehicle and lift her shirt. The evidence is disputed whether they forced her to lay on her stomach or sternly told her to stay at the side. After all the Marescas were out of the truck, the dog became upset and jumped out of the vehicle, running into the highway. Mr. Maresca called the dog and the officers allowed him to hold onto her. Two more deputies arrived and one began directing traffic around the “felony stop.” Two additional deputies arrived next, and the Marescas presented disputed evidence that one of them pointed his gun directly at 14-year-old C.M.’s head, leading C.M. to freak out and start crying to his mom that they were going to kill him. There was also disputed evidence that an officer stood over Mrs. Maresca with his gun cocked in a sideways gangster-style hold. Mrs. Maresca began to panic, and the children and Mrs. Maresca were all crying.

Finally, between seven and fifteen minutes after initiating the stop, Officer Fuentes returned to her vehicle and re-ran the Marescas’ plate, at which point she discovered her error. Fuentes asked one of the other deputies whether she was going to get into trouble. The deputy told her to uncuff the Marescas, let them return to their vehicle, and call a sergeant. Sergeant Bartholf explained to the Marescas that Fuentes was a new officer. The parties dispute whether he ever apologized. Mrs. Maresca asked Officer Quintana why he thought it necessary to point his gun at her when she was already laying on the ground, at which point Quintana smiled and walked away.

The Marescas filed suit in New Mexico state court, alleging the officers violated their 42 U.S.C. § 1983 rights to be free from unlawful arrest and excessive force. The Marescas also asserted state law claims against the officers for assault, false imprisonment, battery, and negligence, and asserted claims against Bernalillo County for negligent training. Defendants removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico. The Marescas filed a motion for summary judgment on their federal claims, and the defendants moved for summary judgment on all claims. The district court denied the Marescas’ motion, granted defendants’ motion, and dismissed the Marescas’ state law claims without prejudice. The Marescas appealed.

The Tenth Circuit analyzed qualified immunity and found it inapplicable to Officer Fuentes. The Marescas argued Officer Fuentes violated their Fourth Amendment rights by arresting them without probable cause and by using excessive force. The officers argued that they did not arrest the Marescas, but the Tenth Circuit disagreed, finding the duration of the stop, the use of firearms, and rough treatment to which they subjected the Marescas indicated that the stop was an arrest. The Tenth Circuit further concluded the arrest was not supported by probable cause because the officers lacked an objectively reasonable basis to believe the truck was stolen. The Tenth Circuit noted that the sole basis for the arrest was Officer Fuentes’ “mistaken and unreasonable belief” that the truck was stolen. The Tenth Circuit clarified that it was not holding that a mere typing error deprives officers of a reasonable basis to effect an arrest, but rather based the holding in this case on all the facts taken together. However, in this case, the undisputed facts established that Fuentes violated the Marescas’ Fourth Amendment rights. The Tenth Circuit held that Officer Fuentes was not entitled to qualified immunity, and in fact that the Marescas were entitled to summary judgment against Officer Fuentes.

Turning to Officer Grundhoffer’s role, the Tenth Circuit concluded it was reasonable for him to rely on the information he was given by Officer Fuentes in assisting with the felony stop. The Tenth Circuit found no evidence that Officer Grundhoffer’s conduct was in bad faith or unreasonable under the circumstances. It therefore upheld qualified immunity as to Officer Grundhoffer.

Turning to the excessive force claim, the Tenth Circuit concluded that the Marescas were entitled to have their claims evaluated by a jury. The Tenth Circuit reiterated that although it granted summary judgment to the Marescas on their Fourth Amendment claims against Officer Fuentes, there were still questions of fact regarding whether the officers used force that was unreasonable under the circumstances. The Tenth Circuit reminded the officers that the use of force must be justified under the circumstances, especially when directed at children as it was here. The Tenth Circuit also found that the Marescas presented evidence of more than de minimus injury.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Officer Fuentes based on qualified immunity, and also reversed the court’s denial of summary judgment to the Marescas as related to Officer Fuentes. It remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment as to Officer Grundhoffer’s qualified immunity. On the excessive force claims, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the denial of summary judgment to the Marescas and remanded for further proceedings.

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 2/1/2016

On Monday, February 1, 2016, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued no published opinion and six unpublished opinions.

United States v. Twitty

United States v. Keiffer

Cyprus Federal Credit Union v. Cumis Insurance Society, Inc.

Genesis Health Clubs, Inc. v. LED Solar & Light Co.

United States v. Rodriguez

Condor-Araujo v. Lynch

Case summaries are not provided for unpublished opinions. However, published opinions are summarized and provided by Legal Connection.