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March 14, 2017
  Smith v. Munday -- Fourth Circuit
A Case of Mistaken Identity: 4th Circuit Rules No Evidence, No Probable Cause

Areas of Law: Constitutional Law, Fourth Amendment, and Qualified Immunity

Issues Presented: 1) Whether investigating officers had probable cause to arrest appellant and 2) whether the arresting officer was entitled to qualified immunity.

Brief Summary: The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that Officer Jason Munday's application for an arrest warrant lacked probable cause and thus violated Smith's Fourth Amendment rights. Having found that no probable cause existed for the warrant, the court determined that Officer Munday was not entitled to qualified immunity. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's ruling and remanded for further proceedings.

Extended Summary: In March 2009, investigating officers Munday and McGinley conducted an undercover investigation using a confidential informant, Rufus Lynch. The officers wired Lynch with audio and video recorders and paid him sixty dollars to engage in a drug transaction. Lynch then went to a location where he purchased crack cocaine from two individuals. After the transaction, Lynch returned to the officers and told them he had purchased the drugs from a "skinny Black female" named "April Smith." Both the audio recorder and camera failed to capture the drug transaction. Over a nine-month period following the transaction, Officer Munday scanned police databases for residents of Lincoln County with criminal records named April Smith. He eventually found a woman named April Yvette Smith, who was a Black female resident of Lincoln County and had been convicted of selling crack cocaine on three separate occasions. He also found two other "April Smiths" with criminal records. Officer Munday had no evidence that the woman who sold crack to Lynch had a criminal record, or was even a Lincoln County resident. He also did not attempt to investigate April Yvette Smith or connect her to the drug transaction. Nevertheless, Munday applied for and received an arrest warrant for Smith on charges of possession with intent to sell crack cocaine and selling or distributing cocaine. Smith was arrested in December 2009 in her home, which was eleven miles away from the site of the drug sale. Smith was held in custody for approximately eighty days until the Lincoln District Attorney's Office dropped the charges against her. Smith allegedly lost her job while in police custody.

Smith filed suit alleging, inter alia, constitutional violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and state law claims for negligence and false arrest. The district court found no constitutional violation had occurred. The district court reasoned that the investigating officers had probable cause to believe that Smith was the woman who sold crack cocaine to Lynch because they were looking for a Black woman named April Smith who sold drugs, and found a person fitting this description only eleven miles away from where the drug sale occurred. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, stating that a criminal history, and common race, gender, and name are insufficient to establish probable cause. The court determined that Officer Munday did not have enough information for any reasonable or prudent person to believe there was probable cause. Moreover, the court reasoned, Munday had no evidence about Smith's conduct, let alone whether she was a participant in, connected to, or even physically present near the drug sale in question. All he knew was that she had previously been convicted for selling drugs, that she was a Black woman, and that she lived "near" the site of the drug sale. The court warned that finding this amount of evidence sufficient for probable cause would allow officers to obtain arrest warrants for any local residents who fit generic descriptions and have an unfortunately common name. The court distinguished this case from two previous cases with similar facts, Thompson v. Prince William County, 753 F.2d 363 (4th Cir. 1985), and Durham v, Horner, 690 F.3d 183 (4th Cir. 2012). In Thompson, the court noted, the police officer used multiple methods to establish the arrestee's identity; and in Durham, a grand jury - not the police officer - determined the existence of probable cause and found that it was the proximate cause of the arrest.

To the question of whether Munday was entitled to qualified immunity, the court determined that he was not. The court found it would be unreasonable for any officer to view Munday's dearth of evidence as sufficient to establish probable cause. Further, the court explained, had Munday carefully reflected on his warrant application, perhaps Smith would not have been incarcerated for eighty days and allegedly lost her job.

Judge Agee disagreed with the majority's finding that the arrest warrant was not supported by probable cause and that Officer Munday was not entitled to qualified immunity. He determined that reasonable minds could disagree as to whether probable cause existed, and therefore found that Munday was entitled to qualified immunity. In particular, Judge Agee disagreed with the majority's distinction between Smith's case and Durham, arguing that the two were analogous because Munday's evidence was "ample" when viewed in its totality. Moreover, Judge Agee argued the evidence in this case was stronger because, unlike in Durham, there was no contradictory evidence. Judge Agee thus concluded that the majority's holding that probable cause was lacking was erroneous. Finally, Judge Agee argued that Munday was entitled to qualified immunity because the majority failed to leave room for the "reasonable error" inherent in a qualified immunity analysis.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Panel: Gregory, Chief Judge, and King and Agee, Circuit Judges.

Argument Date: 09/20/2016

Date of Issued Opinion: 02/03/2017

Docket Number: No. 15-1496

Decided: Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Yvette Pappoe, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Algernon Williams, Sr., LAW OFFICE OF ALGERNON WILLIAMS, Charlotte, North Carolina, for Appellant. Patrick Houghton Flanagan, CRANFILL SUMNER & HARTZOG LLP, Charlotte, North Carolina; Joseph Finarelli, NORTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Matthew K. Lilly, CRANFILL SUMNER & HARTZOG LLP, Charlotte, North Carolina; Roy Cooper, North Carolina Attorney General, Donna Elizabeth Tanner, Assistant Attorney General, NORTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Chief Judge Gregory

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 03/14/2017 10:36 AM     4th Circuit  

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