May 25, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Qualified Immunity Appropriate Where Officers Arrested Entire Group Based on Conduct of Unidentifiable Members

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Callahan v. Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas on Monday, November 16, 2015.

In 2010, the Kansas City Police Department (KCKPD) received three allegations of theft when its specialized SCORE unit was involved in executing search warrants. As a result, the KCKPD and the FBI set up a sting operation, “Operation Sticky Fingers,” to determine the integrity of the SCORE unit. Operation Sticky Fingers involved the execution of a fictitious search warrant at a residence monitored via live video and audio. Bait items had been placed in a bedroom and the basement. During the execution of the search warrant, KCKPD Detective Jon Kelley observed several instances of actual theft but could not tell which officer was involved because of the protective gear worn by SCORE officers. Detective Kelley relayed his observations of the theft to Captain Lawson at another location, who then contacted Captain Nicholson at the residence. Because of the delay in relaying the information from Detective Kelley to Captain Nicholson, it was possible for the officers to have moved around the house before being identified.

After the sting, the SCORE officers returned to the parking garage at KCKPD headquarters and KCKPD commanders arrested all of the SCORE officers as they exited the van. It was later discovered that only Officers Forrest, Bell, and Sillings were involved in the theft. The other three officers, Officers Callahan, Pitman, and Hammons, brought claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City and various individual defendants, asserting violations of their Fourth Amendment rights for arrests without probable cause. The plaintiffs also moved for partial summary judgment on the issue. The district court denied summary judgment, finding that the record supported a finding that probable cause existed to arrest the entire SCORE unit. The individual defendants then moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, which the district court denied without making specific findings on the issue. Defendants moved for reconsideration in one of the cases, requesting a more thorough explanation of the disputed material facts on which the district court relied, and simultaneously filed a notice of appeal. The district court denied the motion for reconsideration and later denied summary judgment in the other two cases. The Tenth Circuit consolidated the three plaintiff officers’ motions for purposes of appeal.

The Tenth Circuit evaluated whether qualified immunity was appropriate based on a clearly established right. The Tenth Circuit first questioned whether the law was clearly established such that defendants would know their actions were illegal, and determined that it was not. The Tenth Circuit noted that plaintiffs and the district court broadly asserted that making an arrest without probable cause was illegal without pointing to the specific inquiry of whether the law was clearly established that an officer cannot arrest an entire group when he knows that some unidentifiable members have committed a crime. The Tenth Circuit determined that Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366 (2003), provided the appropriate precedent under which to evaluate the officers’ actions in the instant case. The Tenth Circuit found that Pringle‘s application to this case was debatable, and concluded that qualified immunity applied. The Tenth Circuit remarked that qualified immunity exists to prevent officers from being held liable for making an incorrect legal determination on the spot without guidance from the courts.

The Tenth Circuit declined to exercise pendant jurisdiction to address the Unified Government’s appeal, because it was not entitled to qualified immunity and the denial of summary judgment to the government was not immediately appealable.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of qualified immunity to the individual defendants and dismissed the Unified Government’s appeal.

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