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Deputy sheriff loses qualified immunity protection from false arrest lawsuit

In this Civil Rights claim Carter along with two other plaintiffs sued the Butts County, Georgia Sheriff office and a deputy sheriff for false arrest, claiming the Sheriff violated the Plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizures.

These are the facts leading to the Plaintiffs’ arrest. When the deputy’s home had fallen into foreclosure, the mortgage holder advised the deputy that the home would sold in a foreclosure sale. After the deputy moved out of the property, the property was turned over to a maintenance company to prepare the property for resale. The deputy was given notice, and the authorized representatives of the entity handling the sale, the plaintiffs, had entered the house to clean and prepare for the sale. The deputy arrived at the house and ordered the plaintiffs to leave. The plaintiffs tried to show him credentials and documentation of the eviction. The deputy contacted the court clerk and learned there was no eviction proceeding against him. He ordered their arrest for burglary, criminal trespass, and theft, and all three went to jail.

The trial court denied defendant deputy’s motion for summary judgment in which he argued for qualified immunity protection against the claim against him and it denied the sheriff’s summary judgment motion on the conversion claim. As to the remaining claims the trial court granted summary judgment.   The Defendants appealed from the trial court’s rulings.

To establish qualified immunity the deputy must first establish that he was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority and duties. There was no dispute that at the time of the incident the deputy was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority as a police officer. The issue was whether the deputy violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights when he arrested them and whether those rights were clearly established in order to overcome the officer’s qualified immunity defense. The appellate court explained the law regarding the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure as it relates to an arrest is well established such that a warrantless arrest without probable cause would support a 1983 claim. But the presence of probable cause supporting an arrest will serve as an absolute bar to 1983 action for false arrest. Even if an officer lacked probable cause to make an arrest, the court must consider whether arguable probable cause exists to entitle the officer to qualified immunity. In evaluating arguable probable cause, the appellate court applies the objective reasonableness standard to the facts as they relate to the elements of the alleged crime for which the plaintiff was arrested. If arguable probable cause supports the arrest of Plaintiffs for any of the three crimes, then the officer is entitled to qualified immunity.

As to charges burglary, criminal trespass and theft that court determined that Georgia law for each offense requires as an element the lack of authority to be inside the property and a lack of authority to remove the property’s contents. The court found that because a reasonable officer in the deputy’s position should have known that the plaintiffs were authorized to enter the property and that they were authorized to remove the contents. Therefore the defendant deputy had no qualified immunity in this federal Civil Rights claim for false arrest because he lacked arguable probable cause to make the arrest.