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Torts--Qualified Immunity for Law Enforcement in Sec 1983 Claim

Ochser v. Funk, 228 Ariz. 365, 266 P.3d 1061 (December 21, 2011) (J. Pelander)

SHERIFF DEPUTIES HAVE QUALIFIED IMMUNITY IN MAKING UNCONSTITUTIONAL ARREST WHERE EXISTING LAW DOES NOT "CLEARLY ESTABLISH" UNCONSTITUTIONALITY OF THEIR ACTIONS

Plaintiff was arrested by Maricopa County Sheriff [MCSO] deputies on a warrant for failure to pay child support that had been quashed 13 months earlier. He told the arresting officers that he had certified copies of the order quashing the warrant within 20 yards of where he was apprehended on his desk in his office. The order was also available online. Despite this plaintiff was arrested and spent the night in jail. He then brought a civil rights lawsuit claiming a violation of his constitutional rights under 42 USC ยง 1983. Defendants' police procedures expert and the deputies supervising officer both testified that if plaintiff told the deputies the warrant was quashed they should have retrieved the order quashing it from plaintiff's desk. Nonetheless, the trial court granted defendants summary judgment on the basis that the deputies were entitled to qualified immunity when the arrest is made on a facially valid warrant. The Arizona Court of Appeals and Arizona Supreme Court affirmed.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that the arrest was unconstitutional under the 4th Amendment: "We hold, and clearly establish prospectively, that when, as here, law enforcement officers arrest someone pursuant to a warrant and are confronted with readily available information that objectively casts genuine doubt on the warrant's validity, the officers must undertake further reasonable inquiry." However, the court also found that the U.S. Supreme Court had previously ruled that officers have qualified immunity where it cannot be proven that the violation was "clearly established" under existing law. This immunity was created as a bar to suit and not just a defense for the purpose of protecting law enforcement from suit and money judgments which might serve as harassment and a deterrent to officers attempting to fulfill their duties.

Here, the Supreme Court found that most of the cases cited were not entirely on point factually with the instant case and those on point were split as to whether investigating the validity of a warrant is reasonably required. Consequently, at the time of the plaintiff's arrest the unconstitutional nature of this arrest was not "clearly established" under existing law and therefore the deputies were entitled to qualified immunity.

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