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Officer had no probable cause to make an arrest

In this case civil rights action Cozzi was arrested for robbing one pharmacy and for the attempted robbery of another. After he was released because the police found no evidence linking him to the crimes, he sued an officer of the City of Birmingham Alabama and several other law enforcement officers alleging a violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unlawful arrest pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983. The district court denied the officer’s summary judgment motion and the officer took this appeal arguing that he was entitled to qualified immunity on that claim because he had arguable probable cause to arrest Cozzi.

The only issue the court had to resolve was whether the officer is entitled to qualified immunity from Cozzi’s claim that the officer violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful arrest. To invoke the qualified immunity doctrine the officer has the initial burden of showing he was within his discretionary authority. The officer met this burden without dispute. The burden then shifted to Cozzi to show that the officer violated his constitutional right and this right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation.

For the arrest to be in compliance with the Fourth Amendment, the officer needed arguable probable cause to make the arrest. Whether a reasonable officer could have believed he had probable cause to arrest depends on the totality of the circumstances.

The appeals court found the officer’s version of events prior to the arrest failed to account for all of the relevant circumstances. Before the arrest the officer receive easily verifiable exculpatory information from Thompson , that Cozzie’s single tattoo did not match the multiple tattoos visible on the perpetrator in the crime scene photograph that the officer showed Cozzie’s friend. Despite hearing this information, the officer failed to look at or inquire about the tattoo before arresting Cozi. Adding these facts to the weak evidence pointing to Cozzi as the perpetrator the court concluded that under the totality of the circumstances the officer lacked arguable probable cause to arrest Cozzi.

The court repeated a well-established principle that a police officer is not required to explore and eliminate ever theoretically plausible claim of innocence before making an arrest. However, the officer may not turn a blind eye to evidence suggesting that a suspect is innocent by choosing to ignore information that has been offered to him or her or by electing not to obtain easily discoverable facts. In viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Cozzi, his friend told the officer that Cozzi could not have been the perpetrator because Cozzi did not have multiple tattoos like the perpetrator in the photograph.

Despite the officer having been presented with plainly exculpatory and verifiable information, the officer did not look at Cozzi’s tattooed arm before arresting him. The court concluded that this was an unlawful arrest and a civil right’s violation because the officer lacked arguable probable cause. Under these circumstances the police officer was unreasonable in disregarding certain pieces of evidence.