Tuesday, April 28, 2015

APD Officers Get Partial Qualified Immunity in Backpack Sting Case

Quinn v. Young, 2015 WL 1089573 (3/13/15) (N.M.) (Published) - On qualified immunity grounds, the 10th turns aside part of a ยง 1983 suit involving the larceny stings Albuquerque Police were involved in for a while. The officers planted a backpack with cigarettes, beer and a laptop computer near an ATM. A couple with a young boy picked up the backpack and took it to a diner. An officer found out no one had called about an abandoned backpack. While the man ordered a hamburger, the woman opened the laptop, which displayed the APD icon. The adults were arrested and kept in jail for two days after which the charges were dismissed. The 10th emphasizes law enforcement officers are given a "wide berth" when it comes to determining if there's probable cause for an arrest. The critical question is whether the officers had enough to believe the couple had the intent to permanently deprive the owner of property that was not abandoned. The 10th rules that the officers didn't have fair warning there was no probable cause because there are no cases out there concerning a larceny sting operation. The 10th stresses there was more likely to be probable cause than in typical non-sting circumstances because the officers knew the couple knew they were not the true owners of the backpack. This is one reason non-sting cases did not set out clearly established law in the sting context. the district court, the 10th holds, evaluated the matter at too high a level of generality. General probable cause cases don't provide sufficient warning. To add insult to injury, the 10th cites an opinion by another division of the district coutrt with respect to the same sting operation and says: "That thorough, well-reasoned opinion" is how you're supposed to address the issue." Judge Vazquez found there was no probable cause, but found qualified immunity applied. The 10th remands the malicious prosecution and substantive due process claims for reconsideration because the district court did not explain why it rejected those claims. By not ruling on whether there was or was not probable cause the 10th gives officers no guidance and thus allows them to go about their sting business with impunity.