Even if Demanding Identification Wasn’t Justified, Officers Protected from Suit

by | September 17, 2021

Barrera v. City of Mount Pleasant, 2021 WL 4005634 (6th Cir. 2021)

As he watched a known drug house, Sergeant Carey Murch spotted a black Buick sedan he had stopped twice before, each time culminating in a drug-related arrest. A registration check showed the Buick’s owner (Robert Shehan) did not have a valid driver’s license. When Sergeant Murch saw the Buick leave the house, he stopped the car for speeding and a driver’s license violation.

The driver, Joaquin Garcia, admitted he lacked a valid driver’s license. Michigan law prohibits allowing an unlicensed driver to operate a vehicle, so the officers sought to discover whether Shehan was among the vehicle’s three passengers. Two passengers gave names, though they didn’t identify themselves as Shehan. The third passenger refused to identify himself. A pat down frisk of the unidentified man produced no identification but did reveal 11 empty plastic bags and $1,033 in cash.

The officers took the unidentified man to jail for fingerprinting. When he removed his sweater for fingerprinting, the officers saw tattoos on his arms: “Marc” and “Barrera” – that was a clue. Checking records for Marc Barrera, officers learned they had detained Barrera, a parole violator with several outstanding arrest warrants; a strip search after arrest revealed he was concealing marijuana and cocaine.

A jury convicted Barrera for drug crimes and the state appellate court reversed his convictions. Barrera sued the officers, claiming false arrest. The trial court granted summary judgment for the officers based on qualified immunity, reasoning the officers had probable cause to take Barrera to jail for his refusal to identify himself under the particular circumstances, which violated Michigan law.

The court of appeals began its discussion with a recitation of the standard for a lawful arrest. Probable cause to arrest exists when the “facts and circumstances within the officer’s knowledge…are sufficient to warrant a prudent person, or one of reasonable caution, in believing, in the circumstances shown, that the suspect has committed, is committing, or is about to commit an offense” (Michigan v. DeFillippo, 443 U.S. 31 (1979)). The standard is objective, not subjective, and the question is whether there was an objective basis for an arrest for any crime, not necessarily the particular crime considered by the officer.

In this case, the officers reasonably suspected the Buick’s owner, Shehan, had unlawfully allowed an unlicensed person to drive and that Shehan was among the three passengers.

Barerra conceded that he refused to identify himself, but he disagreed that his refusal constituted a crime under the circumstances. Michigan law makes it a crime to “obstruct” a police officer who is “performing his or her duties.” Thus, the appellate court framed the question as to whether it was objectively reasonable for Sergeant Murch to think Barrera’s refusal to identify himself was a crime. Remember, the state appellate court ruled that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest Barrera for simply refusing to identify himself.

The United States Supreme Court held that “reasonable suspicion can rest on a mistaken understanding of the scope of a legal prohibition” in Heien v. North Carolina (574 U.S. 54 (2014)). If the officer stops the suspect on the basis of a misinterpretation of the violation of law, there is “no violation of the Fourth Amendment in the first place.” This is known as the “reasonable mistake-of-law test.” Similar to this test, but distinct in analysis, is the “clearly established” qualified immunity factor, or whether the law was “sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would understand that what he is doing” violates the law—so clear that the invalidity of the officer’s actions was “beyond debate” (Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731 (2011)).

The court of appeals held that Sergeant Murch and the other officers were entitled to qualified immunity under either analysis. In Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court (542 U.S. 177 (2004)), the Supreme Court held an officer conducting a valid investigatory detention may require the subject to identify himself when the request is “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the stop.” In this case, the officers reasonably suspected the Buick’s owner, Shehan, had unlawfully allowed an unlicensed person to drive and that Shehan was among the three passengers. When two of the passengers identified themselves and were found not to be Shehan, the officers had cause to demand Barrera to identify himself.

Even if the officers misapplied state law, they still would have been entitled to qualified immunity: “Had the officers been given the luxury to put a pause on this encounter and to do some additional legal research, they would have seen that other courts have reached similar conclusions since Hiibel.” The appellate court could not recite “a single precedent—much less a controlling case or robust consensus of cases—finding a Fourth Amendment violation ‘under similar circumstances.’” Thus, the law was clearly not established in Barrera’s favor. Accordingly, the trial court properly awarded summary judgment to the officers on the basis of qualified immunity.

This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys.

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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