05/28/2024

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The John Minor Wisdom U.S. Court Building in New Orleans, on the left, in Lafayette Square North.

‘Absurd circumstances’: Appeals court rejects qualified immunity for police officers who let drunk driver go and then charged ‘Good Samaritan’ who performed citizen’s arrest

On the left: The John Minor Wisdom U.S. Court Building in New Orleans in Lafayette Square North. (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit)

Two Texas police officers have been denied qualified immunity for allegedly violating a good Samaritan’s constitutional rights by arresting and charging him after he stopped a drunk driver on the highway with a legal citizen’s arrest, a federal appeals court has ruled.

In the case stylized as Austin Thompson Hughes v. Michael Garcia and Joshua Few, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit late last week ruled two Houston police officers can be sued for allegedly violating Hughes’ Fourth and 14th Amendment rights to be free from unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution.

During the wee hours on March 23, 2019, Hughes, a former police officer himself, was driving for Uber — with two passengers in tow — when he saw a GMC Sierra swerving and otherwise driving erratically across I-610 in Houston. Hughes suspected the driver was drunk, so he called 911 and began following the pickup truck with his flashers on. In a scene he described to the dispatcher, Hughes finally saw the truck smash into concrete barriers on both sides of the highway and then stop. Hughes’ call was then transferred to a second 911 center.

While on the phone with the second dispatcher, Hughes said he needed to get the driver “out of the car because, I mean, they’re going to kill somebody.” Then, Hughes described the driver as “obviously intoxicated” and explained how he went to retrieve the driver’s keys and license — along with multiple bottles of alcohol.

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    Later, still on the phone with 911, Hughes described seeing the driver trying to run to the center of the interstate. Hughes can be heard on the 911 call yelling at the drunk driver for their safety before the dispatcher hangs up and assures that help is on the way.

    Eventually, Hughes decided to restrain the drunk man with handcuffs from his Jeep, saying it was “the best and safest option.”

    “At no point did Hughes identify himself as a police officer,” the court observes — citing crucial points in the analysis. “Hughes suggested his two Uber passengers request a new ride, which they did.”

    When Houston Police Department Officers Garcia and Few arrived some 17 minutes later, they put the drunk man into police handcuffs, and met Hughes at a nearby gas station to get his statement. Garcia interviewed the drunk man; Few interviewed Hughes.

    Two days later, Hughes was “forcibly arrested in his pajamas” at 3 a.m. following a “trick” in which the officers pretended they just wanted to look at his cellphone, the court noted.

    Hughes was jailed for over 24 hours and charged with felony impersonation of a peace officer. He faced a minimum sentence of two years behind bars and up to 10 years in prison — but the case was dismissed nearly three months later because no probable cause to believe he committed the crime could be found by a prosecutor.

    The victimized good Samaritan sued under the federal color-of-law statute, and the officers moved for qualified immunity. The district court denied the Supreme Court-created doctrine, and the officers appealed. In no uncertain terms, the appeals court affirmed the denial.

    “For those who worry that qualified immunity can be invoked under absurd circumstances: Buckle up,” the opinion begins.

    From the ruling at length with emphasis on the original:

    Hughes pulled behind the drunk driver and effectuated a citizen’s arrest in accordance with Texas law. But when police officers arrived at the scene, United States Court they let the drunk driver go and then arrested Good Samaritan Hughes. (Seriously.) Piling insanity on irrationality, the officers then charged Hughes with a felony for impersonating a peace officer. Hughes spent thousands of dollars defending against the frivolous criminal charges before the City of Houston dropped them. Then Hughes brought this § 1983 suit against the two officers who victimized him. The district court denied qualified immunity. We affirm. (Obviously.)

    Key to the appeals court’s analysis was the departure from the initial accounts of what happened on the night in question — and the context in which they occurred — and what officers wrote when charging Hughes.

    While Hughes told Few “he used to be a police officer,” the probable cause affidavit incorrectly said Hughes told the drunk driver to submit to him “by stating he was a Police Officer.” This discrepancy, intentional or not, “credited the drunk driver’s version of events,” according to the Fifth Circuit panel.

    But, the court notes, the drunk driver’s version of events was simply not credible — and not just because they were drunk. Rather, the court points out that the drunk driver repeatedly referred to Hughes as “Jesse” and said the two had been hanging out at a flea market just before the incident — and that was just the beginning of the rambling story the pickup truck driver fed to the apparently credible cops.

    The court recounts the more fanciful elements of the tale the drunk driver told police by negating the claims one by one:

    Hughes and the drunk driver had never met; there is no evidence that Hughes accused the stranger of fooling around with Hughes’s wife; Hughes never drove the drunk driver anywhere; multiple independent witnesses and 911 callers (including Hughes’s own, recorded 911 call) and the Uber app screenshots confirm Hughes was not driving the white GMC Sierra; and there is no evidence of a flea market open in Houston at 2:00 a.m., much less a flea market that doubles as a bar where the drunk driver could drink more than 7 beers.

    Then, when penning the probable cause affidavit, Garcia and Few changed several key details from the earlier “ramblings of a man who flunked all six clues” in an intoxication test, the court explained.

    In the new version of the story, “two female friends” appeared out of the blue — seemingly the two Uber passengers — to drive Hughes’ Jeep and follow behind while Hughes drove the pickup until some argument broke out and Hughes decided to handcuff the drunk driver on the side of the highway.

    The affidavit also falsely represented that Hughes had asked for the drunk driver’s identification. In fact, Hughes had seen the drunk driver’s identification in a cupholder and simply grabbed it.

    On top of that, the court observed that the affidavit “omitted key facts suggesting the drunk driver’s unreliability” like the repeat (and incorrect) references to Hughes as “Jesse” and the impossibility of the pickup truck driver drinking at an after-hours “flea market.”

    “All told, Garcia’s affidavit made at least eight material misstatements or omissions,” the appeals court found. “Any reasonable officer would have known, based on the evidence available, that the affidavit contained these errors.”

    But Few is not off the hook.

    “Here, Few allegedly knew the information Garcia contributed to the incident report (and then to the warrant affidavit) contained material misstatements and omissions that did not accurately reflect the evidence from their investigation,” the court also found. “Few had access to substantial evidence contradicting the drunk driver’s narrative and Garcia’s recitation of the facts. Even if Few himself did not write the false statements, he submitted the report containing them.”

    The court ends by once again lambasting the officers for their behavior on the night in question and afterward.

    “It is unclear which part of this case is more amazing: (1) That officers refused to charge a severely intoxicated driver and instead brought felony charges against the Good Samaritan who intervened to protect Houstonians; or (2) that the City of Houston continues to defend its officers’ conduct. Either way, the officers’ qualified immunity is denied, and the district court’s decision is AFFIRMED.”

     

    The post ‘Absurd circumstances’: Appeals court rejects qualified immunity for police officers who let drunk driver go and then charged ‘Good Samaritan’ who performed citizen’s arrest first appeared on Law & Crime.