Sixth Circuit: Qualified Immunity Denied in Claim of Alleged Race-Based Stop, Search, and Arrest

In June 2014, Vanessa Enoch and Avery Corbin attended a pretrial hearing at the Hamilton County Courthouse.

Enoch was researching and reporting on the case for a small local paper and Corbin was personally interested in the proceedings as a former colleague of the defendant in the pre-trial hearing. After the hearing ended, Enoch and Corbin left the courtroom and went into the hallway, where there were approximately 20 people gathered to record a press conference. The two joined the group, using their mobile devices to take pictures.

When Enoch went to use the restroom, Deputy Sheriffs Hogan and Nobles stopped her, demanded the password for her iPad under the threat of arrest, searched it, and forcibly handcuffed and arrested her. The deputies also ordered Corbin to cease recording under threat of arrest, searched his iPad, and handcuffed and arrested him. Of the group in the hallway, only Enoch and Corbin, who were black, were treated this way.

On the way to the sheriff’s office, the deputies told Enoch that they “did not know” why she was being arrested. When they arrived at the sheriff’s office, the deputies issued citations to Enoch and Corbin, alleging violations of two Ohio laws.

Enoch and Corbin filed a § 1983 suit against Deputies Hogan and Nobles, the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, and County Sheriff Jim Neil, along with 4 other employees of the Sheriff’s Office who have since been dismissed from the case. Enoch and Corbin alleged violations of their constitutional rights under the First and Fourth Amendments, as incorporated through the Fourteenth Amendment, and state tort law. The defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings and claimed qualified immunity.

The district court concluded the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. Since a denial of a claim of qualified immunity is immediately appealable when involving issues of law, the deputies appealed the district court’s decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

As noted by the court of appeals, qualified immunity protects government officials performing discretionary functions unless their conduct violates a clearly established statutory or constitutional right of which a reasonable person in the official’s position would have known. As such, to defeat a claim of qualified immunity, a plaintiff must show that that the official’s conduct violated a constitutional right and that the right was clearly established at the time of the violation.

The court first considered whether Enoch and Corbin plausibly alleged a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights with regard to their claims of unreasonable search and seizure, false arrest, and malicious prosecution.

The court of appeals analyzed the deputies’ interactions with Enoch and Corbin under the standard for investigative stops laid out in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). However, the Terry standard did not govern the entirety of the deputies’ interactions with Enoch and Corbin since arrest without probable cause is unconstitutional. However, the court stated Terry was a useful beginning point for its analysis because the level of suspicion required under Terry is more than what is necessary for probable cause, which would be required here. Logically, if the deputies cannot to satisfy Terry’s reasonable suspicion standard, they cannot satisfy probable cause.

The deputies contended that Enoch and Corbin violated a courthouse rule, and arrested Enoch and Corbin as a result. The rule prohibits recording “in any courtroom or hearing room, jury room, judge’s chambers or ancillary area (to be determined in the sole discretion of the Court) without the express permission of the Court.” This list does not include hallways. The court therefore disregarded this argument.

Accepting as true Enoch and Corbin’s allegations that their clearly established Fourth Amendment rights were violated when the deputies stopped, searched, and arrested them based on race, the court of appeals found that Enoch and Corbin plausibly alleged violations of their rights. Clearly established law in the Sixth Circuit provides that the reasonable suspicion requirement for an investigative detention cannot be satisfied when the sole factor is race, which it was here. Because individualized suspicion is a less demanding standard, it followed that the same race-related facts did not satisfy the high probable cause standard. As a result, the deputies were not entitled to qualified immunity on Enoch and Corbin’s Fourth Amendment claims.

The court then considered Enoch and Corbin’s claim that the deputies unconstitutionally infringed upon their First Amendment right to free speech.

Enoch and Corbin alleged they were part of a group of social media members and private individuals recording events of public importance. The deputies argued again they were enforcing courthouse rules, which the court disregarded for the reasons above. The deputies also argued that there was no clearly established First Amendment right to record. The court disagreed outright, stating that newsgathering has long qualified for First Amendment protection. The court found that Enoch and Corbin therefore plausibly alleged a violation of their clearly established First Amendment rights.

Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court’s denial of qualified immunity and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.

Read the full case: Enoch v. Hogan


This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, Associate Attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

 

 

 

 

 

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