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Officer has qualified immunity against false arrest claims

Where a man who was found not guilty of assault and battery after an incident at a Walmart sued a police officer for false arrest and malicious and retaliatory prosecution, but the officer had probable cause to detain the man for assault and battery, the officer was granted summary judgment based on qualified immunity.


Jeremiah Henderson appeals the district court’s dismissal of his complaint brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, in which he alleged that Austin McClain, an officer with the Roanoke police department, violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights. Appellant asserted that appellee violated his Fourth Amendment rights when he detained appellant during an incident at a Walmart store and that he thereafter retaliated against appellant in violation of the First Amendment by initiating criminal proceedings for assault and battery because appellant filed a citizen’s complaint about the incident with the Roanoke police department. The district court awarded summary judgment in appellee’s favor, holding that he was entitled to qualified immunity.

Probable cause

Other than the excessive force claim, all of appellant’s claims require appellant to demonstrate that appellee lacked probable cause or lacked a reasonable belief that he had probable cause to arrest or detain appellant for assault and battery. Here, the detention occurred immediately after appellant was accused of making threats against one Walmart associate and touched another during a confrontational conversation.

Given the somewhat chaotic and hostile scene, the undisputed facts — specifically, that appellant reached for and touched assistant manager Christopher Shelton’s arm to prevent Shelton from walking away — could lead a reasonable officer to conclude that the contact was done in a rude, insolent or angry manner. Thus, the totality of the circumstances was “sufficient to warrant a prudent person, or one of reasonable caution, in believing, in the circumstances shown, that the suspect has committed an offense.”

Appellant contends that “[e]ven if [his] conduct . . . was sufficient to justify [appellee] in seizing [him] to prevent him from taking some further action against Shelton, it was insufficient to support [appellee’s] initiation of a prosecution of [appellant] for assault and battery under Virginia law on October 19–four days later.” But probable cause did not disappear in the four days between the detention and arrest. Contrary to appellant’s suggestion otherwise, the mere fact that Shelton initially declined to press charges does not mean that Shelton felt no fear or apprehension of bodily harm. It simply means that he did not wish to press charges. Moreover, under Virginia law, such a feeling of fear or apprehension is only required for assault — not for battery.

Appellant contends that the district court erred by granting appellee summary judgment on the malicious prosecution and false arrest claims based on the existence of probable cause because appellee withheld material facts from the magistrate that issued the arrest warrant. The material fact allegedly omitted — appellee’s motive for pursuing the charge — is entirely irrelevant to whether, based on appellant’s actions at Walmart on Oct. 15, 2018, there was probable cause for appellee to believe that appellant committed assault and battery as defined by Virginia law.

Furthermore, even if appellee omitted a material fact as appellant contends, that omission would affect the weight the magistrate’s finding of probable cause holds, not whether a reasonable officer would have believed probable cause existed at the time of appellant’s arrest. Here, the district court — which did not base its probable cause finding on the existence of the arrest warrant — correctly determined that the undisputed facts established probable cause.

Appellant also argues that there is a dispute of fact as to whether he touched Shelton in a rude, insolent or angry manner. This argument reaches well beyond the probable cause determination before the court to the merits of the assault and battery claim. Probable cause does not require evidence sufficient to secure a conviction. Nor does it require officers to act as “legal technicians” by, for example, analyzing at length when contact is rude, insolent or angry.

Excessive force

This court has held that the use of handcuffs rarely constitutes excessive force where the officer has probable cause for the underlying arrest. Of course, there are exceptions to this general rule, as a “lawful arrest does not categorically legitimize binding a person’s wrists in chains.” But this case is no exception. Although the bodycam footage here is not of perfect quality or unambiguous in all respects, the record evidence puts beyond genuine dispute that, at a minimum, appellant was initially physically resistant and noncompliant with appellee’s instructions during the handcuffing.


Henderson v. City of Roanoke Virginia, Case No. 20-2197, March 9, 2022. 4th Cir. (per curiam), from WDVA at Roanoke (Cullen). Gary M. Bowman for Appellant. Timothy Ross Spencer for Appellee. VLW 022-2-072. 13 pp.

VLW 022-2-072