Devenpeck v. Alford

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Issues 

Whether a police officer can arrest a person for one offense, but later charge that person with another offense even if the charged offense is wholly unrelated to the arresting offense?
Whether a law or doctrine is "clearly established" when several courts have differing opinions?
Oral argument: 
November 8, 2004

In Devenpeck v. Alford, the Supreme Court will consider two issues. First, the Court will settle a conflict among the circuit courts in determining how precise an officer's stated reasons for probable cause must be to the actual arresting offense. Two judicial circuits find an arrest reasonable if, based on an objective assessment by a reasonable officer, there is probable cause to arrest for any offense. On the other hand, at least five judicial circuits find an arrest to be reasonable only if there is probable cause to arrest for crimes "closely related" to the crime or crimes articulated by the arresting officer. The Court will likely find the narrow approach more appealing and allow arrests for only "closely related" offenses. Second, the Court will decide if the law regarding arrests for "closely related" offenses was clearly established at the time of Alford's arrest. The Court will likely find the law was not settled, and thereby overrule the Ninth Circuit's decision in Alford v. Haner, et al. 333 F.3d 972 (9th Cir. 2003).

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Does an arrest violate the Fourth Amendment when a police officer has probable cause to make an arrest for one offense, if that offense is not closely related to the offense articulated by the officer at the time of the arrest?
For the purpose of qualified immunity, was the law clearly established when there was a split in the circuits regarding the application of the "closely related offense doctrine," the Ninth Circuit had no controlling authority applying the doctrine, and Washington state law did not apply the doctrine?

Analysis 

LEGAL BACKGROUND
FOURTH AMENDMENT VIOLATIONS AND QUALIFIED IMMUNITY
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. . . ." U.S. Const. amend IV. Fourth Amendment rights are strengthened by 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which makes violations of such fundamental rights actionable in U.S. courts. The statute's ultimate function is "to deter [officials] from using the badge of their authority to deprive individuals of their federally guaranteed rights and to provide relief to victims if such deterrence fails." Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U.S. 158, 161 (1992), citing Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 254 (1978).
Those accused of violating these constitutional rights may utilize the affirmative defense of "qualified immunity." Qualified immunity "protects government officials performing discretionary functions…from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). In establishing whether qualified immunity is an available defense, courts "must first determine whether the plaintiff has alleged the deprivation of an actual constitutional right…and, if so, proceed to determine whether that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation." Conn v. Gabbert, 526 U.S. 286, 290 (1999).
Officers Devenpeck and Haner claim they are entitled to qualified immunity because the "closely related offense doctrine" utilized by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was not clearly established as law. Their argument, therefore, is that they did not deprive Alford of a clearly established right.
WHY THIS CASE IS IMPORTANT
The importance of Devenpeck v. Alford lies in the effect the Court's decision will ultimately have on the conduct of law enforcement officers in making arrests. If the Ninth Circuit's decision is upheld and the officers are not granted qualified immunity, it will frustrate the administration of justice by encouraging law enforcement officers to stack charges in order to ensure the existence of probable cause, avoid potential § 1983 civil rights liability, and avoid suppression of evidence. Petitioners Brief 24.
Another important consideration under these circumstances is the level of familiarity officers must have with all Fourth Amendment developments -- including not only laws of their own jurisdiction but also those conflicting rulings of any court of appeals. Judge Gould, who dissented in Haner, claimed that "[t]he majority's strict liability rule oppresses law enforcement, and relies on an unworkable legal fiction that presumes police officers must be aware of all state court of appeals decisions bearing on law enforcement." Haner, 333 F.3d at 981 (Gould, J. dissenting). Gould also cites Ganwich v. Knapp, which states that "[i]t may be argued that judges should not expect police officers to read United States Reports in their spare time, to study arcane constitutional law treatises, or to analyze Fourth Amendment developments with a law professor's precision. We do not expect police officers to do those things." Id.
ANALYSIS
MUST OFFENSES BE CLOSELY RELATED?
In Devenpeck v. Alford, the Supreme Court will likely overturn the Ninth Circuit's decision in Haner because prior Supreme Court cases have consistently held that probable cause is determined from the facts and circumstances at the time of the arrest, not the officer's subjective motives or beliefs, including those beliefs related to the specific arresting offenses.
Although the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, an officer is entitled to arrest a suspect if there is probable cause for that arrest. U. S. v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 235 (1973). Probable cause exists when, at the moment of arrest the facts and circumstances within the officer's knowledge "and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information were sufficient to warrant a prudent man" to believe the suspect had committed or was committing a crime. Beck, 379 U.S. at 91. Indeed, the Supreme Court, in evaluating this standard has abandoned a two-pronged test to establish probable cause and instead stated that the analysis of whether probable cause exists is based on an evaluation of the "totality of the circumstances" at the time of the arrest. Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325, 330-31 (1990). This test is now known as the "objective reasonableness test." Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91 (1964). Under Washington state law, if a police officer makes an arrest for an offense where there was no probable cause, the arrest will still be upheld as long as probable cause existed for some other crime. Petitioner's Brief 14.
The Ninth Circuit, on the other hand, applies the "closely related offense doctrine." Haner, 333 F.3d at 976. Under this doctrine, probable cause still must exist to make an arrest, but probable cause is said to exist if a police officer reports an offense for which there is no probable cause and the offense is "closely related" to another offense for which there actually is probable cause. Id. In Alford v. Haner, the Ninth Circuit defined "closely related offense as one "involv[ing] the same conduct for which the suspect was arrested." Id., citing Gasho v. U.S., 39 F.3d 1420, 1428 (9th Cir. 1994). Therefore, the Ninth Circuit ruled that although there was probable cause to arrest Alford for impersonating an officer and obstructing an officer, these crimes were not "closely related" to the Privacy Act violation articulated by Devenpeck and Haner; therefore, they were guilty of unlawfully arresting Alford. 333 F.3d at 976.
The Supreme Court, however, has never held that an officer's subjective motives or beliefs are relevant in determining whether probable cause exists. Petitioner's Brief 16. If the objective probable cause test is met, it is not even necessary to establish that the particular officer making the arrest or search subjectively believed that probable cause was present. Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 530 (1983). Thus, an officer's subjective beliefs about specific crimes being committed are immaterial . The Court has repeatedly stated that the only determination that an officer must make at the time of an arrest is whether a reasonable and prudent person, given the specific circumstances, would have reason to believe that the suspect had committed or was committing an offense. Beck, 379 U.S. at 91. The Court has never held that an officer must act on his own motives or beliefs, and arrest a suspect based only on those crimes the officer subjectively believes the suspect is committing. Rather, the very essence of probable cause is that it is an objective test, existing independent of a particular's officer's subjective thoughts.
Here, a number of circumstances surrounding Alford's arrest would lead a reasonable officer to believe that he was violating the law and needed to be arrested. Specifically, Alford's possession of certain items and the presence of "wig-wag" lights on his car indicated that he was impersonating a police officer. Although Officer Devenpeck stated that he arrested Alford because he believed that recording a traffic stop was illegal, this subjective belief is irrelevant in the evaluation of whether probable cause actually existed. Thus, the Supreme Court should have no trouble holding that the officers' evaluations of the crimes being committed were immaterial. Indeed, it is enough that, based on all circumstances present at the moment of the arrest, a reasonable and prudent officer would have arrested Alford for any crime.
WAS THE LAW "CLEARLY ESTABLISHED"?
The Supreme Court will probably conclude that the closely related offense doctrine was not clearly established for the purposes of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity shields police from liability for civil damages as long as their conduct does not violate "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). The doctrine of qualified immunity allows police officers to make reasonable mistakes of law without facing civil damages and is based on the idea that police officers will sometimes have a difficulty drawing fine legal distinctions in situations requiring quick decisions. "Clearly established" law, for the purposes of qualified immunity, is where "[t]he contours of the right [are] sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987). The plaintiff must overcome the presumption that a police officer is entitled to qualified immunity by presenting the court with "all potentially relevant authorities" that might prove the law was clearly established. See Elder v. Holloway, 975 F.2d 1388, 1392-93 (9th Cir. 1991). Arguably, these standards have not been met in this case.
The closely related offense doctrine is not clearly established either nationally or in the Ninth Circuit. There is no national precedent regarding the doctrine because the circuit courts are split and the Supreme Court has not previously addressed this issue. Moreover, the closely related offense doctrine is not clearly established within the Ninth Circuit. In Haner, the Ninth Circuit cites only a footnote in Gasho v. U.S. to support the proposition that the closely related offense doctrine is clearly established. 39 F.3d at 1428 n.6. That footnote states that "[p]robable cause may still exist for a closely related offense, even if that offense was not invoked by the arresting officer, as long as it involves the same conduct for which the suspect was arrested." Id. This footnote appears to be dicta. In addition, both the offense cited during the arrest and the offense with which Gasho was charged were closely related, so the Ninth Circuit did not have to conclusively decide whether an arrest could be valid if there was probable cause for an unrelated offense.
The only other Ninth Circuit case discussing the closely related offense doctrine is Bingham v. City of Manhattan Beach (Bingham I). 329 F.3d 723 (9th Cir. 2003). Bingham I was heard by a different panel of the Ninth Circuit at the same time as Alford. Bingham I held that although the closely related offense doctrine was the law in the Ninth Circuit, an officer was entitled to qualified immunity because there was probable cause for an offense unrelated to the one cited during the arrest. Id. at 734. After Alford, the Ninth Circuit published an amended opinion distinguishing Bingham I from Alford. Bingham v. City of Manhattan Beach, 341 F.3d 939 (9th Cir. 2003) (Bingham II). If the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was itself split regarding whether officers are entitled to qualified immunity for an arrest based on probable cause for an unrelated offense, the Supreme Court cannot hold that the law was clearly established in the Ninth Circuit.
Futhermore, the Supreme Court will likely hold that the arresting officers were entitled to qualified immunity because Washington did not follow the closely related offense doctrine. See, e.g., Washington v. Vangen, 72 Wash. 2d 548, 553 (1967); City of Seattle v. Cadigan, 55 Wash. App. 30, 36 (1989). State and federal courts independently address questions of federal law, despite that this will cause conflicts, because only the Supreme Court has the authority to overturn state court rulings on federal law. Atlantic Coast Line R.R. Co. v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, 398 U.S. 281, 286 (1970). Even if the closely related offense doctrine were clearly established in the Ninth Circuit, the police officers would still have acted reasonably by following the law of their own state. Therefore, for the purposes of qualified immunity, it was not clearly established that these police officers were operating under the closely related offense doctrine.
Because the Ninth Circuit's precedent on the closely related offense doctrine is unclear and the state of Washington does not apply the doctrine at all, Alford's arresting officers were entitled to qualified immunity since they had probable cause for an offense unrelated to the offense for which they arrested Alford.