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.