case law update

Qualified Immunity Granted where Probable Cause Could Have Occurred to Different Officer

The Ninth Circuit recently granted qualified immunity to an officer who arrested a driver without actually possessing probable cause to authorize the arrest because a reasonable officer could have known that probable cause did exist for the arrest. 

Not the subject of a traffic stop at the time, driver Tarahawk von Brincken refused to produce his driver’s license in response to a demand from Tuscon Police Officer James Voss. Voss then arrested von Brincken, relying on an Arizona civil traffic offense statute regarding driving an improperly equipped vehicle and another statute that subjects a driver to arrest for criminal conduct for not producing a driver’s license upon the request of an officer in the course of a traffic stop. Von Brincken subsequently brought a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against Voss and his partner, Officer Richard Legarra in U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona.

Voss and Legarra filed motion for summary judgment in the trial court, asserting a qualified immunity defense. The trial court denied the motion, and Voss and Legarra appealed that ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

On appeal, two members of a three-judge panel reversed the trial court’s ruling. The majority reasoned that an officer in Voss’s position could have reasonably believed von Brincken’s refusal to produce his driver’s license constituted a misdemeanor offense under different Arizona statutes than those on which Voss actually relied to arrest von Brincken. The court explained, “[b]ecause an officer in Voss’s position could reasonable believe von Brincken committed a misdemeanor in his presence, Voss and Legarra could reasonably believe that Voss had the authority to arrest von Brincken…and that the arrest would not violate von Brincken’s Fourth Amendment rights.” The court thus held Voss and Legarra were entitled to qualified immunity.

Chief Judge Thomas dissented. Relying on Supreme Court precedent that “Fourth Amendment seizures are reasonably only if based on probable cause to believe that the individual has committed a crime,” Chief Judge Thomas explained that that Voss violated von Brincken’s Fourth Amendment rights when Voss arrested von Brincken relying on two statutes that clearly did not permit the arrest. “To hold otherwise, as the majority does” the Chief Judge wrote, “turns a traffic offense statute into a ‘stop and show me your papers’ statute.”

Thus, because Voss and Legarra arrested von Brincken without actually possessing probable cause to believe he had committed a crime, the Chief Judge wrote that the two officers violated von Brincken’s clearly established constitutional rights. 

Because majority opinion decides appeals, the Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court ruling and determined Voss and Legarra were entitled to qualified immunity against von Brincken’s suit.

Read the full case: Von Brincken v. Voss, et al. 


This case law update was written by James P. Heelan, 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

Tags: Fourth Amendment, fourth amendment right, probable cause


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