Monday, October 26, 2015

Arrest invalid due to “readily available exculpatory evidence”

Say you are a new county sheriff’s officer, just two months into your job. While on patrol, you notice a family in this truck:

The father waves at you as he drives by. He has done nothing illegal, and there is nothing unusual about the truck, but, what the heck, you follow them. You enter their license number into NCIC (off by one digit, but you don’t know that), and get a  hit for a stolen car described as looking like this:

Failing to notice the “considerable mismatch” between the stolen car and the truck in front of you, you commence a felony stop. During this stop, a family of five (including two teenagers and a nine-year-old) are ordered out of the truck at gunpoint, checked for weapons, and made to lie prone on the highway. Traffic is stopped in both directions until each family member is cuffed and placed in a separate squad car.

This, the Tenth Circuit says in an opinion granting summary judgment on the family’s ' 1983 claim against the officer who initiated the stop, was an unlawful arrest. The officer acted unreasonably in two ways. First, the differences between the family’s truck and the car reported stolen in the NCIC report “are not minor; they are material and obvious” (emphasis the Tenth’s). “Moreover, in determining whether there is probable cause, officers are charged with knowledge of any ‘readily available exculpatory evidence’ that they unreasonably fail to ascertain.” The officer’s failure to ascertain that evidence was unreasonable here:

In this case, such readily available exculpatory evidence included the stolen vehicle description already on Fuentes’s computer screen before the arrest, which did not match the Marescas’ truck in style, make, model, year, color, license plate number, or registration status; and the corrective information that dispatch presumably would have provided had Fuentes waited for verification, in accordance with her training. These steps were not taken. See Baptiste, 147 F.3d at 1257 (“A police officer may not close her or his eyes to facts that would help clarify the circumstances of an arrest.”) (quoting BeVier v. Hucal, 806 F.2d 123, 128 (7th Cir. 1986)); see also Phelan v. Village of Lyons, 531 F.3d 484, 488 (7th Cir. 2008). Even after stopping the Marescas, Fuentes could have gleaned readily available exculpatory evidence by interviewing the Marescas, considering the Marescas’ specific, repeated requests to recheck their license plate and the fact that all of the Marescas were fully compliant and showed no indicia of any risk to officer safety, and recognizing the commonsense implications of the fact that the truck’s passengers were a family of five (plus the family dog) on a state highway during the daytime.

Maresca v. Bernadillo County, et al., No. 14-2163, slip op. at 16-17 (10th Cir. Oct. 22, 2015).

The Tenth Circuit hasn’t invoked “readily available exculpatory evidence” to invalidate an arrest in a long time (since Baptiste was decided in 1998). It’s good to see the concept still has legs.

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