Keller v. Fleming, 2020 (5th Cir. 2020)
A city police officer responded to a call of someone walking on the highway. The officer found Gerald Simpson, a “mentally infirm man,” walking in the middle of a state highway. When the officer tried to converse with Simpson, the officer could not understand his incoherent speech. The officer realized he was outside the city limits and called for a county deputy sheriff to respond. Another city police officer took over for the first officer, still waiting for the sheriff’s deputy.
Simpson returned to walking in the roadway, with the officer following him. The officer was able to convince him to stop and sit in the back of the officer’s car. The deputy sheriff arrived and placed Simpson in the back of his car and asked him where he lived. Simpson pointed west and the deputy drove west. The deputy then let Simpson out at the county line and he began to walk west.
A couple hours later, a driver struck and killed Simpson as he was walking on a county road in the dark. Simpson’s estate sued, alleging the deputy unlawfully seized Simpson when he placed Simpson in the back of his patrol car.
The plaintiffs suggested the deputy gave Simpson a ride to the county line to rid the county of an unwanted vagrant. The deputy asserted his motives were based in community caretaking and that the sheriff’s office had a practice of giving rides to persons in need.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits only unreasonable seizures. A seizure is presumptively unreasonable if there is no warrant or an established exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.
For purposes of analyzing a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, the court asks whether, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person would have thought he was not free to leave: “Whenever a police officer accosts an individual and restrains his freedom to walk away, he has seized that person. . . . When the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen may we conclude that a ‘seizure’ has occurred,” as stated in Terry v. Ohio (392 U.S. 1 (1968)). Applying that standard, the court held the officer seized Simpson.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits only unreasonable seizures. A seizure is presumptively unreasonable if there is no warrant or an established exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. The deputy had no warrant and his attorneys failed to argue a recognized warrant clause exception applied. Therefore, the court held the seizure was unreasonable and presumptively unlawful.
Even though the seizure of Simpson was unlawful, the deputy may benefit from qualified immunity if his unlawful seizure did not amount to a violation of a clearly established right. A constitutional right is “clearly established” when “existing precedent … placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate,” as decided in Mullenix v. Luna (136 S. Ct. 305 (2015)).
The court considered the initial contact with Simpson may well have been justified by the question of whether Simpson was a danger to himself. Moreover, the court acknowledged the deputy’s community caretaker function would be a legitimate government interest as to public safety. Thus, a reasonable deputy would not have known it was clearly established that he should not seize Simpson and give him a ride. Additionally, the court held the deputy had not established a special relationship with Simpson, which might support a claimed duty to protect Simpson. The deputy was entitled to qualified immunity and dismissal of all claims in the lawsuit.