Lincoln v. Scott, (5th Cir. 2018)
Officers were dispatched to a report that John Lincoln was armed and intended to shoot his mother. When officers arrived, only John and his daughter, Erin Lincoln, were in the house. John Lincoln came to the front door several times, taunting officers with comments such as “come and take it,” and “make your move.” Erin Lincoln just stood by John Lincoln’s side as he opened the door and shouted at officers.
The last time he opened the door, John Lincoln was fatally shot by officers. Erin Lincoln fell or dropped to his body and had to be forcibly removed. She claimed that an officer handcuffed her, threw her over his shoulder and dragged her from the scene kicking and screaming.
Erin Lincoln was placed in a police car and the handcuffs were removed. The officers reasoned that putting her in a patrol car would facilitate removing John Lincoln’s gun and providing medical aid to him, and would prevent Erin Lincoln from interfering with the investigation. Moreover, it was a chilly December night and she was not dressed to be out in the cold. An officer stayed with her, a supervisor checked on her from time to time, and a detective asked whether she needed anything. She never told anyone she wanted to leave, and neither the detective nor other officers had determined whether Erin Lincoln was merely a witness or complicit in John Lincoln’s plan to kill his mother.
An officer drove Erin Lincoln to the police station where the detective conducted a brief initial interview with her. The detective asked her to write a statement; she agreed and wrote five pages. Erin Lincoln then remained at the station, sitting with her family, while other family members were interviewed.
Erin Lincoln was detained for approximately two hours in the patrol car and an additional two hours and 17 minutes at the police station. Although there was probable cause to charge Erin Lincoln for interference with performance of public duties and assault, no charges were ever filed against her. Since she wasn’t charged, Erin Lincoln claimed she was unreasonably seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment (unreasonable detention) and sued.
The U.S. Supreme Court has never endorsed detention longer than 90 minutes (and that was in a case where the detainee was suspected of criminal activity). The court cited several cases where detentions of witnesses, ranging from 90 minutes to five hours, had been held to violate the Fourth Amendment. Thus, the four-hour detention, in this case, was unreasonable detention.
Though the court held that Erin Lincoln’s unreasonable detention was unconstitutional, the court’s task was to consider whether a witness’s right to not be detained for such a long period was “clearly established law” prior to this incident. A right is “clearly established” when it is based on “a sufficiently clear foundation in then-existing precedent. The rule must be ‘settled law,’ which means it is dictated by ‘controlling authority’ or a ‘robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority.’” If the right is not clearly established, then the officers are entitled to qualified immunity from suit.
Whether it was reasonable to detain a compliant witness to an officer-involved shooting for questioning and investigative preservation had not been directly addressed by the court. Thus, the right was not clearly established at the time and the officers could not be held liable.
Though the officers were immune from suit in this case, the court’s decision is another step toward clearly establishing a witness’ right to not be detained for extended periods of time, even in critical incidents. Though there are many pressing urgencies in the hours after a shooting or other critical incident, don’t detain a witness for too long. Prolonged or avoidable unreasonable detention is fodder for an illegal detention lawsuit and risks alienating the detained witness.