Sixth Circuit: Qualified Immunity Not Granted to Officers Who Allegedly Falsified Charges

January 14, 2016, was Terry Parnell’s birthday. That evening, he was celebrating with his fiancée, Nicole Cann, at her home in Detroit. That evening, Cann wanted to practice firing a legally purchased handgun, and she went out to her front porch and fired several practice shots at an abandoned home.

A neighbor called 9-1-1 and two Detroit police officers, Richard Billingslea and Hakeem Patterson, responded to the call. They drove onto Cann’s street, scanning the houses with their spotlights as they passed. Officer Billingslea claimed to see a black male in a brown shirt shooting at the police cruiser from Cann’s front porch. Parnell wore a brown shirt that evening.

Officer Billingslea told Officer Patterson what he claimed to have seen, and radioed that shots were fire. Additional officers arrived. Officers knocked on Cann’s front door, and Parnell and Cann voluntarily came out. Cann yelled loudly that she was the shooter. Ignoring Cann, the officers directed Parnell to stand up with his arms in the air and walk backwards toward them. Parnell complied with these orders. The officers then threw him on the ground and beat him. Officer Billingslea wrote a report detailing these events, including his allegation that he saw Parnell fire shots at the cruiser.

Meanwhile, Cann gave the officers permission to search her home, and the officers found the loaded handgun. She stated again that she was the one who was shooting, and the officers continued to ignore her. Cann called 9-1-1 to report that officers wrongfully arrested Parnell.

Captain Mark Thornton, the highest ranking officer at the scene, wrote an incident report, and stated that he could not confirm Officer Billingslea’s claims because he found no bullet marks on the cruiser. Sergeant Raymond Diaz, an evidence technician who examined the scene, also found no physical evidence to corroborate Officer Billingslea’s account. Rather, he found evidence consistent with Cann’s account. He prepared an evidentiary report on his findings.

Sergeant Clinton Mack reviewed the officers’ reports and interviewed Parnell. He submitted an investigator’s report to Prosecutor Pachia Yang that excluded Diaz’s findings. Yang also spoke to Officer Billingslea, who told her that he was shot at. Yang charged Parnell with assault with a deadly weapon and other weapons crimes. At preliminary examination, Officer Billingslea was the sole witness, and testified to his version of events.

On the morning of Parnell’s trial, Sergeant Diaz spoke to Prosecutor Barbara Lanning about his evidence report. Before this meeting, Lanning was unaware of his report. She concluded that Officer Billingslea’s police report and preliminary examination testimony was not accurate. Lanning filed a motion to dismiss, and the trial judge dismissed the case without prejudice.

Parnell then filed a civil rights lawsuit under § 1983 in Michigan state court against the officers and City of Detroit. The defendants removed the case to federal court. After discovery, Parnell dismissed his claims against the City of Detroit.

Parnell brought several Fourth Amendment claims against Officer Billingslea and Sergeant Mack. He asserted malicious prosecution against both officers, and false arrest and false imprisonment claims against Officer Billingslea. The officers moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, and the district court denied their motion. They appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

For Parnell to prevail on his claims of false imprisonment, arrest, and malicious prosecution, the Sixth Circuit noted that he needed to show the absence of probable cause. False imprisonment and arrest require a showing that the defendants lacked probable cause to arrest him, and malicious prosecution requires a showing that the defendants lacked probable cause for the criminal prosecution. In addition, malicious prosecution requires Parnell to show that the officers made, influenced, or participated in the decision to prosecute him, that he suffered a deprivation of liberty apart from the initial arrest, and the criminal proceeding was resolved in his favor.

The court first examined whether probable cause existed for the arrest and prosecution. The court stated that normally, the state magistrate’s finding of probable cause to support Parnell’s arrest and the state court’s finding of probable cause to support the charge and bind Parnell over for trial after preliminary examination would end the matter. However, Parnell was able to rebut the presumption created by those probable cause determinations with evidence that the officers “knowingly or recklessly” made false statements.

The court found that the record could support a jury finding that the officers knowingly or recklessly made material false statements. Specifically, the court stated that Diaz’s report and the evidence recovered by Diaz is consistent with Parnell’s account and not with Officer Billingslea’s account. Likewise, when it came time for Officer Billingslea to testify to his version of events for this action, he backtracked his original story and claimed in his deposition that he could not actually tell the direction of the shots.

The court stated that because a reasonable jury could find the absence of probable cause to support Parnell’s arrest, Parnell’s Fourth Amendment claims for false arrest and imprisonment must go to the jury. The court stated that a reasonable jury could also find for Parnell on the lack-of-probable cause element of his malicious prosecution claim against both officers. The court then turned to the other elements of that claim.

The court reviewed whether the information supplied by the officers influenced the decision to prosecute Parnell. Yang testified that she made the charging decision on the basis of Officer Billingslea’s and Sergeant Mack’s police reports, and Officer Billingslea’s statement to her that he was shot at. Because Officer Billingslea’s version of events was crucial to the charge, the court found that it was reasonably foreseeable that the false information provided by the officers to Yang would have influenced her decision to prosecute.

The court then considered the last disputed element of malicious prosecution – whether the proceedings terminated in Parnell’s favor. The court stated that there is “no binding precedent in this circuit as to whether a dismissal without prejudice can constitute a favorable termination for § 1983 purposes.” The officers offered a variety of district court opinions to support their conclusion that a dismissal without prejudice can never constitute a favorable termination. Still, the officers acknowledged that an abandonment of prosecution generally constitutes a termination in favor of the accused so long as the final decision indicates the accused is innocent. Here, the prosecutor immediately decided to dismiss the charges after learning of the undisclosed evidentiary report. The court found that a reasonable jury could conclude that Parnell showed sufficient evidence of “formal abandonment” of the charges. As a result, the court stated that Parnell’s malicious prosecution claims must go to a jury.

On Parnell’s other claims against the officers, the found that Officer Patterson was not entitled to qualified immunity on Parnell’s claim against him for failure to intervene when the officers used excessive force, and that Officer Billingslea was not entitled to qualified immunity on Parnell’s state law claims against him for assault and battery, false arrest and imprisonment, and malicious prosecution.

As such, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of summary denied for the officers in all respects.

Read the full case: Parnell v. City of Detroit


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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