Police Officer Can’t Play Fast and Loose with Fake Facts

Pinkney v. Meadville, Pennsylvania, 2024 WL 1061801 (3rd Cir. 2024)

When a panel of federal court of appeals judges begins a unanimous opinion with: “Police may not fake facts to find probable cause,” it probably won’t end well for the officer involved. And in this case, it didn’t.

An officer was near Julian’s Bar, a crowded college drinking hole, when he saw four men, two of whom were carrying Rhett Happel. Happel’s face had been smashed so badly that his eye was swollen shut. But Happel could not remember how he was hurt. The officer called for an ambulance. While they waited for the ambulance, one of the men volunteered that he believed Happel had been assaulted and speculated the attack was connected to a claim that Happel had drugged a woman who was found unconscious in the bathroom of Julian’s Bar the previous night.

A few days later, Duncan Freeland told the officer the assailant was an African American male, approximately six feet tall, with braided hair. Freeland said the man walked up to Happel in the bathroom of Julian’s Bar, tapped Happel on the shoulder and punched Happel on the left side of his face as he turned around. A friend, trying to jog Freeland’s memory, sent Freeland three Facebook photos of Jared Shaw, a white male who had been observed at Julian’s Bar with the assailant on the evening of the assault; in all three photos, the only Black man was Kobe Pinkney. After viewing the photos, Freeland described Pinkney as having shorter hair than the assailant. Pinkney had never worn his hair in braids and is not six feet tall.

The officer questioned Freeland. Though the officer asked what the court described as “several leading questions assuming that Pinkney did it,” Freeland never identified Pinkney in his own words. Freeland did agree with the officer that Pinkney looked like the assailant “minus the hair.” The officer prepared an affidavit of probable cause stating a witness had described Happel’s attacker as “an African American male approximately six feet tall with braided hair,” and that Freeland had “specifically identified Pinkney” as the assailant.

Based solely on the officer’s statements in the probable cause affidavit, a judge issued an arrest warrant for Pinkney. Pinkney was arrested while in a philosophy class at the local college. Immediately after Pinkney’s arrest, several witnesses came forward and stated Pinkney was not involved in the assault. One of the witnesses said he was at Julian’s Bar the night of the assault and that he did not see Pinkney there. The same witness identified Josiah Williams as the likely assailant. Williams is a Black male who wore his hair in braids. This information and other exculpatory evidence were relayed to the police department.

Though there was the single witness identification which usually bears significant weight, the officer’s “method was flawed” and the three-Facebook picture “homemade photo array was suggestive.”

Before Pinkney’s attorney could provide a security video recording from Julian’s Bar showing that Happel and Williams, not Pinkney, were in the bar on the night of the assault, the prosecutor withdrew all charges against Pinkney. The investigation that exonerated Pinkney also included forensic testing results from a ring police had confiscated from Pinkney based upon suspicion it was “a foreign object utilized in the assault against Happel.” The test results were negative for any evidence implicating Pinkney.

Pinkney sued the officer and others for false arrest and malicious prosecution. The trial court granted qualified immunity to the officer and Pinkney appealed. Because the arrest was based on a warrant issued by a magistrate, Pinkney could only prevail if the officer misrepresented material information in the probable cause statement.

The court held the officer recklessly disregarded the truth in the probable cause statement. The officer wrote Freeland “recognized” Pinkney as the attacker, implying “Freeland had identified Pinkney positively and unequivocally.” The court criticized the officer’s leading questions, noting that “leading questions increase the risk of a false identification.” Moreover, at best, Freeland merely suggested Pinkney “looked an awful lot like” the attacker, not that he was the attacker. The court was also critical of the officer’s disregard of the discrepancy in hairstyles. The officer “had obvious reasons to doubt the accuracy of the information he reported.” The court concluded, “Finally, the officer omitted three key facts.” He failed to state the “victim had been threatened by other men, that a witness had at first identified the attacker as female, and that no other witness had seen Pinkney at the bar.”

Once it was found the officer misrepresented critical information in the affidavit, the court considered whether the misrepresentations and omissions were material to the finding of probable cause to arrest. Though there was the single witness identification which usually bears significant weight, the officer’s “method was flawed” and the three-Facebook picture “homemade photo array was suggestive.” Eyewitness identification must have at least basic signs of reliability. The officer failed to address any of the common witness identification reliability factors: “To decide whether a suggestive witness identification is admissible at trial, we consider (1) how much opportunity he had to view the criminal during the crime, (2) how attentive he was, (3) how accurately he had described the criminal in the past, (4) how certain he was, and (5) how much time passed between the crime and the identification” (Neil v. Biggers, 409 U.S. 188 (1972)). The court held, “Freeland’s identification was neither reliable nor corroborated.” This case serves as a reminder, as always, of the importance of holding to proper policy and procedure across operations—including when it comes to eyewitness identification.

The court of appeals held, “Pinkney’s right not to be arrested without probable cause was clearly established.” Thus, Pinkney was entitled to have a jury decide whether the officer “exaggerated and hid facts to manufacture probable cause.” The court overturned the grant of qualified immunity.

To be sure, the greatest harm is that Pinkney’s rights were clearly violated by sloppy police work, described by the court of appeals as “covering up a lack of probable cause by recklessly disregarding the truth in an affidavit.” It would not have taken much to uncover the exculpatory evidence and to clarify Freeland’s identification as tenuous and unreliable at best. Along with the damage to Pinkney’s interests, the police department and the officer have indubitably damaged the community’s confidence in the trustworthiness of their police department. And now the officer risks facing a jury’s decision to award damages to Pinkney.

Ken Wallentine

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 four 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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