Fifth Circuit: Probable Cause Is the Ultimate Question When Applying Franks Analysis in a Civil Suit Claiming False Arrest

While Leonardo Ortega was closing a Subway shop, two masked men entered. One aimed a gun at Ortega and the other stole cash from the register. A struggle ensued, and Ortega was shot and pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital.

Dallas Police Detective Elena Perez was assigned to the case. During the investigation, two eyewitnesses told her about a lookout who stood across from the shop and ran off with the two other suspects. An anonymous tipster also called in with information about the third suspect’s identity, stating that Christopher Miller bragged about being the lookout. Perez then brought Miller in for questioning.

In questioning, Miller explained that he smoked synthetic marijuana and drank beers before coming to the station. Miller’s story fluctuated, originally stating that he had nothing to do with the murder and later stating that two men he often saw selling drugs nearby in an apartment complex asked him to watch while they robbed the Subway. Miller told Perez that he knew them by K.T. and Weezy, and that K.T. was the one who shot Ortega.

The next morning, officers took Miller and his brother to the apartment complex to see if they could find K.T. The officers soon learned that K.T. was Anderson Jones. The officers tailed Jones, and saw him walk in the street instead of the sidewalk, a violation of the Texas Transportation Code. When Jones got in a friend’s car, the officers pulled him over. The officers smelled marijuana during the stop, and a search of Jones’s backpack uncovered marijuana, a scale, and baggies. The officers arrested Jones for marijuana possession.

While detained, Jones admitted his nickname was K.T., but denied any involvement with Ortega’s murder. Jones stated he was with his girlfriend on the evening of the murder. However, when Perez contacted Jones’s girlfriend, she said she picked up Jones that night from a bus stop near the subway.

Perez decided to conduct a photo lineup to see if Miller could identify Jones as K.T. Another officer showed Miller six photographs, and asked whether the person pictured killed Ortega. Miller answered “yes” to three of the photographs – one of Jones and two of uninvolved individuals. Perez then returned with a single photo of Jones and asked “Who’s that?” Miller answered, “That’s K.T.”

Over the course of two interviews, Miller’s story had inconsistencies, including where he was located when the murder occurred and how Weezy and K.T. left the scene. Miller also suggested his mother was at the scene, and some of his statements were contradicted by other evidence, such as the gun Miller stated was used, the clothing he stated Weezy and K.T. wore, and where Weezy and K.T. were located when the murder occurred.

Despite these inconsistencies, Perez used Miller’s statements to obtain an arrest warrant against Jones for capital murder. In her probable cause affidavit, Perez stated that Miller confessed to participating in and planning the offense, that Miller stated that “Jones shot and killed” Ortega, and that Miller picked Jones from a photo lineup. She also stated that she interviewed Jones and he was “uncooperative.” The warrant was issued and Jones (already detained on the marijuana charge) was booked on the murder charge.

Days later, Perez’s superiors learned about her handling of the case and recommended that the capital murder charge be dropped. It was. The Dallas Police Department then investigated Perez’s handling of the case and determined she improperly conducted a one-photograph lineup and entered inaccurate and incomplete information in her probable cause affidavit. She was suspended for ten days and removed from the homicide division.

Jones then filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit against Perez, alleging his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated when he was arrested for capital murder. Perez contended that she was entitled to qualified immunity. The district court determined that Jones did not suffer a violation of his constitutional rights and granted summary judgment to Perez. Jones appealed the district court’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

The court of appeals stated that the relevant analysis in this case is taken from Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154 (1978), and requires Jones to show genuine issues of material fact on (1) whether Perez knowingly, or with reckless disregard for the truth, provided the magistrate with false information, and (2) whether after reconstructing Perez’s probable cause affidavit by excising the falsehoods and inserting the material omissions, the warrant would be unsupported by probable cause.

The court stated that while Franks announced a standard for determining when evidence should be suppressed, it has been applied outside the suppression and search warrant contexts. However, the court noted that because a warrant is not a prerequisite to a lawful arrest, the ultimate inquiry for a Fourth Amendment false arrest claim is whether the arrest was reasonable. Thus, the court stated that it has, in civil suits challenging arrests, applied a third step after completing the traditional Franks analysis, asking whether “any reasonably competent officer possessing the information each officer had at the time [s]he swore [her] affidavit could have concluded that a warrant should issue.” The court stated that this inquiry of whether the officer had information establishing probable cause is the ultimate liability question in a false arrest case (whether or not that information was included in the warrant).

Here, the court found that Perez had probable cause to believe Jones committed the murder at the time she swore to her affidavit. The court stated that Perez knew that Miller pointed the finger at someone named K.T., other witnesses corroborated some of the information Miller provided, and Jones admitted his nickname was K.T. Perez also knew that Jones gave a false alibi. Because Perez could have reasonably believed probable cause existed when she obtained the warrant for Jones’s arrest, the court found that the arrest did not violate his Fourth Amendment rights.

The court also found that Jones’s claim that the arrest violated his right to substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment failed because the Fourth Amendment, although unavailing, “provides an explicit textual source of constitutional protection” for the allegations at issue.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court. In doing so, the court noted that the outcome of this case may seem inconsistent with the deterrence rationale of Franks. The court stated, however, that the case is a product of a false arrest claim ultimately about whether probable cause existed rather than the validity of the warrant. The court further noted that this case “shows that civil litigation is not the only way to hold officers accountable for misconduct.” The court stated that “[p]olice departments can play a role too, as Dallas’s did in suspending Perez and removing her from homicide investigations based on her conduct in obtaining the warrant charging Jones with murder.”

Read the full case: Jones v. Perez

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.

Posted in Case Law Update


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