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No qualified immunity for actions leading to false convictions

Where state and county law enforcement officers allegedly coerced a false confession out of two teenage boys with severe intellectual disabilities, the officers are not entitled to qualified immunity because they violated teenagers’ clearly established constitutional rights.

Background

This case stems from the wrongful conviction of two brothers, both teenage boys with severe intellectual disabilities, for the rape and murder of an 11-year old girl in 1983. Henry McCollum and Leon Brown spent 31 years in prison and on death row before being exonerated based on DNA evidence linking another individual to the crime. Following their release from prison, appellees brought this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the state and county law enforcement officers investigating the crime violated their Fourth Amendment and due process rights.

The officers moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court denied their motion, and this appeal followed.

Individualized liability analysis

Appellants assert that the district court broadly misapplied the test for qualified immunity because it did not identify “what each individual officer knew, when he knew it, and what specific actions he did or did not take.”

It is true that the defense of qualified immunity is a defense for individual defendants. But it would be counterproductive to require a district court to wade through convoluted issues of fact at this stage in order to determine individual liability, where: (1) appellants did not raise individualized qualified immunity arguments before the district court but instead asserted collective qualified immunity defenses; (2) the facts have yet to be resolved, and the district court only determined whether qualified immunity applies as a matter of law and (3) appellees alleged that appellants acted in concert to violate their constitutional rights. Accordingly, the district court did not improperly apply the test for qualified immunity by waiting to parse the liability of each individual defendant as it relates to each claim until the facts are determined.

False arrest and malicious prosecution claims

Appellants next challenge the district court’s denial of appellants’ motions for summary judgment as to appellees’ false arrest and malicious prosecution claims. The district court denied appellants’ motions after concluding that, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to appellees, appellees presented evidence that their confessions were fabricated or coerced, which was sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether appellants violated appellees’ clearly established constitutional rights not to be arrested in the absence of probable cause and on the basis of a coerced confession. This dispute of fact precluded a ruling on qualified immunity.

Appellants argue that they did not violate appellees’ constitutional rights because probable cause existed for appellees’ arrest as a matter of law. Alternatively, appellants argue that even if they did violate appellees’ constitutional rights, the officers could have believed that their conduct was lawful because those constitutional rights were not clearly established by existing precedent. The court rejects both arguments and instead holds the district court did not err by concluding that appellees’ right not to be arrested without probable cause based on a coerced and fabricated confession was clearly established in 1983 and that the district court was correct to deny summary judgment to appellants on the basis of qualified immunity in light of the numerous material disputes of fact.

Due process claims

Appellants moved for summary judgment as to appellees’ due process claims on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court denied summary judgment upon concluding that the facts, viewed in the light most favorable to appellees, demonstrated that appellants violated appellees’ clearly established due process right “not to be deprived of liberty as a result of the fabrication of evidence by a government officer acting in an investigating capacity.”

Appellants assert that the district court’s denial of summary judgment was erroneous because each of appellees’ due process claims fails as a matter of law. In the alternative, appellants argue that even if they did violate appellees’ constitutional rights, the officers could have believed that their conduct was lawful because those constitutional rights were not clearly established by existing precedent. The court rejects both arguments and instead affirms the district court’s denial of summary judgment as to appellees’ due process claims.

Affirmed.

Concurring and dissenting opinion

Richardson, C.J., concurring in part and dissenting in part:

I agree that the plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment claims should survive summary judgment and that their Fifth Amendment claims arising from their confessions and Mary Richards’s statement should likewise go to trial. However, on the remaining due process claims, the plaintiffs fail to articulate the violation of a constitutional right. And even if they could, these alleged due process rights were not clearly established in 1983. I would therefore reverse on these remaining Fifth Amendment claims.

Gilliam v. McCollum, Appeal Nos. 18-1366, 18-1402, July 30, 2019. 4th Cir. (Thacker), from EDNC at Raleigh (Boyle). James R. Morgan Jr. for Appellants, Catherine E. Stetson for Appellees. VLW No. 019-2-216. 46 pp.

VLW 019-2-216

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