Seventh Circuit Rules Detective Entitled to Qualified Immunity

Wheeler v. Lawson

Today the Seventh Circuit issued an opinion in Wheeler v. Lawson (attached), affirming the district court's granting of summary judgement in a false arrest case.


Plaintiff had a detached garage on her property. After an explosion in the garage, the police found "a furnace, two propane tanks that were ruptured, thirty cans of starter fluid and lithium batteries that had been broken apart. Someone had used a can-opener to open the bottom of the starter fluid cans. Police also found a clear plastic bag with a powdery substance that later was determined to be methamphetamine; autopsy tests of someone who was in the garage "revealed the presence of methamphetamine in his system". "Detective Lawson noticed that the valves of the propane tanks had been altered, and, based on his prior experience, Detective Lawson knew that these tanks and the type of connection on them often are used in metham-
phetamine labs.

Detective Lawson had only two brief talks with the plaintiff immediately before and immediately after the fire was extinguished. During these short conversations, plaintiff told the Detective that she did not know the cause of the fire, that she was not aware that [someone] had been inside the garage and that she was not aware of any methamphetamine production taking place on her property.

About two weeks later, on June 22, Detective Lawson arrested her on the charge of maintaining a common nuisance. The charges were later dropped and plaintiff brought suit.

The Seventh Circuit ruled that there was no probable cause to arrest plaintiff for maintaining a common nuisance.

The court explained that defendant could not show that plaintiff had constructive possession of the contraband.

One way defendant attempted to show constructive possession was through information learned in discovery, but the Seventh Circuit dismissed this information because "[a]ny evidence . . . that came to light after the arrest,” we have explained, “is not relevant to the probable cause inquiry.” Maltby v. Winston, 36 F.3d 548, 557 (7th Cir. 1994). Before the district court and on appeal, Detective Lawson asserts that Ms. Wheeler stored numerous personal items, including bicycles, a lawnmower, patio equipment and clothing, inside the garage and that she used the garage about once a week. In support of this factual assertion, however, Detective Lawson relies only upon Ms. Wheeler’s deposition that was taken for purposes of this case. Critically, nothing in Detective Lawson’s deposition or in the reports that were created in the course of the investigation indicates that, at the time that he arrested Ms. Wheeler, he knew that she kept personal items in the garage or that she used the garage once a week. This absence of evidence thus eliminates one of the corroborating circumstances upon which Detective Lawson relies.

Nevertheless, the Seventh Circuit found that the detective was shielded by qualified immunity

The Court explained:

"These circumstances provided a reasonable, although ultimately mistaken, basis for Officer Lawson to believe that Ms. Wheeler was aware of the activities taking place in the garage. Although Detective Lawson could have conducted a more thorough investigation under the circumstances, given the information that he knew and given that the burden is on Ms. Wheeler to defeat his qualified immunity defense, we cannot conclude that a reasonable officer could not have believed that there was probable cause to arrest Ms. Wheeler for maintaining a common nuisance."


Seventh Circuit Rejects Qualified Immunity Defense In Towing Incident

Plaintiffs Ryan Belcher and Daraina Gleason filed suit against the town of Orland, Indiana and Deputy Marshall Vaughn Norton after their vehicle was towed and they were arrested after attempting to remove a radio from the vehicle at the impoundment lot. Defendant Vaughn argued that even if he violated plaintiffs Fourth Amendment rights, he was entitled to qualified immunity. The Seventh Circuit stated that the doctrine of qualified immunity  "can shield a public official such as Deputy Marshall Norton from civil liability if he can demonstrate that he was performing a discretionary function and that a reasonable law enforcement officer would have believed that, at the time he acted, his actions were within the bounds of the law," citing Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). The court further stated that "qualified immunity protects an official from suit and from liability for civil damages when, at the time of the challenged action, the contours of the constitutional right were not so defined as to put the official on notice that his conduct violated the Constitutions," citing Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 739 (2002). The Seventh Circuit held that the qualified immunity defense was not available to Deputy Marshall Norton because a reasonable police officer acting at the time would have known that he lacked probable cause to arrest the plaintiffs for criminal conversion since Indiana's lien statute gave the towing company a lien on the vehicle but not its contents. The case was decided on August 15, 2007 and bears case number 06-3174.

Seventh Circuit Reiterates That Duty To Disclose Exculpatory Information Extends To Post-Conviction Proceedings

In a case styled Gordon Steidl vs. Steven Fermon, Diane Carper, Charles Brueggeman, et al., the Seventh Circuit rejected the defendants' qualified immunity defense. Plaintiff Gordon Steidl spent 17 years in prison for a double homicide in Paris, Illinois that he alleges he did not commit. Steidl was released from prison in 2004 after a federal district court granted his petition for habeas corpus. After his release, Steidl brought a civil rights lawsuit against Fermon, Carper, Brueggeman, who were Illinois State police officers, and others. These defendants asserted a qualified immunity defense arguing, in part, that the obligations to disclose under Brady do not extend beyond the original trial. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument, stating: "In our view, Brady, Ritchie, and the other cases in this line impose on the state an ongoing duty to disclose exculpatory information if, as Brady put it, that evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment and available for the trial. . . For evidence known to the state at the time of the trial, the duty to disclose extends throughout the legal proceedings that may affect either guilt or punishment, including post-conviction proceedings."