Vivianne Washington was arrested in the investigation of a brutal murder of an elderly woman at her home in Meriwether County, Georgia after assailants invaded her home, attacked her, and set her on fire. Before she died, she named her assailants as several black males and an African American female. Officer Hugh Howard of the Meriwether County Sheriff’s Office investigating the crime received a tip from a farm employee suggesting that he interview Cortavious Heard. Heard was a former farm employee who was on probation for another crime. After Heard was picked up he eventually admitted to his involvement in the home invasion. While interviewing suspect Heard, officer Howard received a tip that came into the Meriwether Sheriff’s Department from an informant that identified Washington as someone the informant heard was involved in this. The informant sent a photograph of Washington. When Howard received it, he told Heard about the tip and showed Heard Washington’s photograph. Heard identified it as the woman who was involved in the home invasion. After obtaining more information about Washington and confirming that the information came from a reliable source, an arrest warrant was issued for Washington. She was arrested at work about 5:00 p.m.
After her arrest Washington was interviewed by Howard who showed her photographs of Heard and others believed to be involved. She denied knowing Heard but admitted knowing others. She then recanted her previous statements and said she had lied in the first interview and denied any involvement in the crime. After the two interviews the officer walked Washington by Heard’s cell when Heard retracted his previous identification of Washington by saying “[T]hat’s not her.” Because Washington gave inconsistent statements about whether she knew the other suspected perpetrators, Howard arranged for Washington to take a polygraph test in which she denied any involvement or knowledge of the crime which she failed. After hearing that she failed, Washington admitted to being involved in the crime and began to make up details about it. But Howard realized that Washington’s account was inconsistent with evidence already gathered at that point. Washington was returned to jail and Howard returned home for the evening.
The next day Heard asked to speak to Howard and admitted that Washington was not involved and said he falsely identified her to protect his girlfriend, who he identified as the co-conspirator. Because this contradicted his earlier statements about Washington, Howard had Heard take a polygraph in which he said that Washington was not involved. He passed that polygraph. Howard than cancelled Washington’s arrest warrant and had her released.
Washington sued Howard in federal court for a violation of her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983. The district court dismissed her lawsuit after concluding that Howard was entitled to qualified immunity because it ruled that the police officer must release a person only when arguable probable cause ceases to exist. It concluded that on account of the facts that Washington had already admitted to knowing suspected co-conspirators when Heard verbally recanted his identification of Washington, given the sequence of events, there was at least arguable probable cause to detain Washington until Heard passed the polygraph. It found that probable cause persisted throughout Washington’s detention and that Howard acted reasonably in seeking out the polygraphs and re-interviewing Heard.
The court of appeals agreed. First it determined the correct legal standard to evaluate whether an office had probable cause to seize a suspect is to ask whether a reasonable officer could conclude that there was a substantial chance of criminal activity. Because probable cause supported Washington’s detention even after Heard’s statement, her continued detention was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.