Marshals Granted Qualified Immunity after Tasering and Arresting a Wrongfully Identified Suspect
In April 2009, Deputy U.S. Marshals Sean Franklin and Christopher Wallace tasered, arrested, and interrogated Mr. Stuart Wright, who was wrongfully identified as a suspected armed and dangerous felon.
Mr. Wright brought a Bivens action against the Marshals. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit entered a decision granting the Marshals qualified immunity.
In 2008, a Grand Jury indicted a “Mr. Vinol Wilson” for various drug-related offenses. Deputy Marshal Franklin began an investigation to locate Mr. Wilson and quickly learned of Mr. Wilson’s penchant for basketball and participation in basketball leagues in the Greater Kansas City area.
After questioning teammates who played with Mr. Wilson, Deputy Marshal Franklin was informed that Mr. Wilson played in a basketball league at the Grandview Community Center and would be playing on April 15, 2009. Deputy Marshal Franklin viewed the team roster, but did not find Mr. Wilson’s name on the list.
On the evening of April 15, 2009, a confidential source called Deputy Marshal Franklin to inform him that he spotted Mr. Wilson at the Grandview Community Center, dressed in an orange jersey with the number “23” on the back and braided hair. Deputy Marshal Franklin appeared at the basketball game with five other U.S. Marshals, including Deputy Marshal Wallace. Sporting plainclothes and a badge around his neck, Deputy Marshal Franklin forced the buzzer to sound and engaged Mr. Wright, who matched the description as provided.
Confronted by Deputy Marshal Franklin’s pointed weapon, Mr. Wright began to back away, only to be struck in the back by Deputy Marshal Wallace’s Taser. Though the Marshals viewed Mr. Wright’s driver’s license and were informed by the crowd and an officer who went to high school with Mr. Wright that he was “not the guy,” the Marshals held Mr. Wright in custody for over twenty minutes.
Mr. Wright filed a Bivens claim in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, Western Division, alleging false arrest, unreasonable search and seizure, and use of excessive force in violation of his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. The Marshals moved for summary judgment based on the defense of qualified immunity, contending that the facts did not demonstrate a deprivation of any constitutional right. The district court denied the Marshals’ motion.
The Marshals filed an interlocutory appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, but the court of appeals declined to address its merits. Rather, the court of appeals remanded the case back to the district court to make a proper qualified-immunity analysis, which it failed to make earlier. The court of appeals advised the district court that it must examine the record to make findings of fact, viewing genuinely disputed facts in the light most favorable to Mr. Wright, and conclusions of law sufficient to permit appellate review.
On remand, the district court granted the Marshals’ motion for summary judgment on Mr. Wright’s false arrest claim, but not on his excessive force and improper search and seizure claims. The district court stated that a video of the scene did not clearly depict the Marshals as officers. Relying on Shekleton v. Eichenberger, 677 F.3d 361, 366 (8th Cir. 2012), the district court found that a “reasonable officer” would not consider it “necessary” to use a Taser under the circumstances. Further, the district court concluded that after the Marshals realized Mr. Wright was not the suspected felon, they “attempted to capitalize on their mistake” when subjecting Mr. Wright to interrogation.
The Marshals appealed the district court’s denial of summary judgment on the excessive force and unreasonable search and seizure claims. Reviewing the district court’s decision on qualified immunity de novo, the court of appeals viewed the facts in the light most favorable to Mr. Wright. The court of appeals then reversed the district court’s decision on both grounds.
The court of appeals decided that it was not clearly established at the time of the events that the Marshals’ use of a Taser on a man reasonably identified as a suspected armed and dangerous felon violated his constitutional rights. Though the district court relied on Shekleton to find the opposite conclusion, the court of appeals noted that those facts are distinguishable. In Shekleton, the officers tased a non-violent suspect arrested for public intoxication – a misdemeanor. Here, even though Mr. Wright was wrongfully identified as the suspect, the court of appeals noted that the force was justified because the suspect sought had a history of drug, weapons, and aggravated assault offenses – felonies.
The court of appeals also decided that holding Mr. Wright in custody was reasonable given the Marshals’ assertion of separate, independent bases for the continued detention. The Marshals contended that they kept Mr. Wright in custody after discovering his true identity because he resisted arrest; they discovered two outstanding arrest warrants for him; and the twenty minutes detention was reasonable given the confusion. The court of appeals found these justifications credible, noting that the “Fourth Amendment does not demand perfection from law enforcement officers; it only requires that their conduct be reasonable under the totality of the circumstances.”
The court of appeals thus reversed the district court’s judgment denying the Marshals’ motion for summary judgment and remanded the case back to the district court for entry of an order granting qualified immunity to Deputy Marshals Franklin and Wallace.
Read the full case: Wright v. United States
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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