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Media Alerts - Humbert v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore City -- Fourth Circuit
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September 29, 2017
  Humbert v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore City -- Fourth Circuit
The Lies that Bind: Police Officers' Use of Questionable Investigatory Tactics Leads to Successful § 1983 Malicious Prosecution Claim

Areas of Law: Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law

Issue Presented: Whether the District Court erred in determining there was probable cause to support the seizure of Marlow Humbert, and erred in determining the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

Brief Summary: Humbert spent some fifteen-months in pretrial solitary confinement after being charged with sexual assault. When charges were dropped against him, Humbert filed suit against the police officers involved in his case. He alleged the officers engaged in various questionable tactics during the investigation. A jury found the officers liable for malicious prosecution under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and awarded Humbert $2.3 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The trial judge rejected the jury verdict, concluding the officers had probable cause to arrest Humbert and were entitled to qualified immunity. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the lower court's findings. The Fourth Circuit found the officers' conduct amounted to malicious prosecution under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 because the officers had no reasonable basis to believe probable cause existed to seek the warrant or initiate criminal proceedings against Mr. Humbert. The Fourth Circuit further determined the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity, and thus reinstated the jury verdict.

Extended Summary: Marlow Humbert initiated claims against Officers Jones, Smith, and Griffin for malicious prosecution under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and for violations of Articles 24 and 26 of Maryland's Declaration of Rights. The claims stemmed from the officers' actions, which contributed to Mr. Humbert's fifteen-month pretrial solitary confinement after being charged with sexual assault. During Mr. Humbert's confinement, the officers failed to notify the State's Attorney that the victim could not positively identify Humbert and never mentioned that DNA reports excluded Humbert as a suspect. In addition, the officers included a false statement within the warrant application. After obtaining the information that had been withheld by the officers, the prosecutor entered a nolle prosequi as to Humbert's charges. Humbert then sued.

At trial, the jury found for Humbert and awarded him $2.3 million in compensatory and punitive damages. However, the district court granted the officers' motion for judgment as a matter of law. In rejecting the jury verdict, the trial judge found the officers had probable cause to arrest Humbert and were entitled to qualified immunity. Humbert appealed, and the Fourth Circuit reversed.

In reversing, the Fourth Circuit held that: (1) Humbert's arrest was unsupported by probable cause because it resulted from a materially false warrant application, and (2) Humbert's seizure could not otherwise be justified by "adequate knowledge independent of the warrant to constitute probable cause." Because arresting and initiating legal process against Humbert without probable cause amounted to a seizure in clear violation of the Fourth Amendment, the court found the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity.

The Fourth Circuit first analyzed whether the jury's factual findings demonstrated that the officers' conduct amounted to malicious prosecution under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Malicious prosecution claims are considered for § 1983 purposes when one alleges that their arrest was made pursuant to a warrant that was not supported by probable cause. In order for Humbert to succeed, he had to prove (1) the officers caused his seizure, (2) pursuant to legal process unsupported by probable cause, and (3) the criminal proceeding terminated in his favor. Since the jury found Humbert was seized and criminally prosecuted and the State's Attorney entered a nolle prosequi; the Fourth Circuit focused its analysis on whether probable cause existed to institute and maintain the criminal proceedings against Humbert.

As to the probable cause question, the court found the officers deliberately or with a "reckless disregard for the truth" included in the warrant application the false assertion that the victim had positively identified Humbert. Indeed, the court concluded - based on the jury's factual findings - that the officers improperly influenced the victim's tentative identification of Humbert as her attacker by showing her a picture of Humbert and declaring he was her attacker before she saw his photo in a photobook. The court next determined that a "corrected" warrant application, removing the victim's alleged identification, would not establish probable cause. The court then turned to whether probable cause otherwise existed to arrest Humbert and initiate criminal proceedings against him. The Fourth Circuit found that although testimony indicated Humbert matched the vague physical description of the assailant, his mere presence in the area eight days after the crime was committed was not sufficient to justify his arrest. Based on these findings, the court concluded that the legal process instituted against Humbert and his resulting pretrial detention were unsupported by probable cause.

Finally, as to qualified immunity, the Fourth Circuit found that a reasonable person in the officers' positions would have known their actions violated a clearly established right. As the court noted, the objective standard for qualified immunity encompasses the allegation of falsity or material omissions "because a reasonable officer cannot believe a warrant is supported by probable cause if the magistrate is misled by [stated or omitted facts] that the officer knows or should know are false [or would negate probable cause]."

The Fourth Circuit, thus, reversed in part, vacated in part, and remanded with instructions.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Panel: Chief Judge Gregory and Judges Thacker and Harris

Argument Date: 01/25/2017

Date of Issued Opinion: 08/07/2017

Docket Number: 15-1768

Decided: Affirmed by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Avatara Smith-Carrington, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Charles Henry Edwards, IV, LAW OFFICE OF BARRY GLAZER, LLP, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant. Suzanne Sangree, BALTIMORE CITY DEPARTMENT OF LAW, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: George Nilson, City Solicitor, Kara Lynch, Assistant Solicitor, Colin Glynn, Assistant Solicitor, BALTIMORE CITY DEPARTMENT OF LAW, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Chief Judge Gregory

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 09/29/2017 08:31 AM     4th Circuit  

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