Officers denied qualified immunity for illegally detaining murder victim’s family members

Officers transported family members to the police station without consent or probable cause for interview while victim died at the hospital


On August 5, 2017, Preston Davis was stabbed outside a gathering at his home. Witnesses to the stabbing included the victim’s wife, Crysteal Davis; the victim’s brother, Damon Davis; and his cousin, Iisha Hillmon. Des Moines, Iowa police officers arrested the perpetrator and paramedics took the victim to the hospital.

Officers Spear, Neumann and Kramer were on scene to investigate the stabbing. The three witnesses identified the perpetrator at the scene and told the officers that they wanted to go to the hospital to support the victim. Two of them tried to leave in their personal cars but were stopped by police. At least three officers told the family that they would take them to the hospital and the three family witnesses got into two police cars. Instead, the officers drove them to the police station, where they remained for more than three hours to be interviewed. During the trip to the station and while at the station, the family members demanded to be taken to the hospital.

While at the station, Crysteal Davis asked an officer if they were being held captive. The officer responded: “You guys are not free to leave. The detectives want to talk to you.”

During the time the family was detained at the station, Preston Davis died. The family members sued officers Spear, Neumann, Kramer and Watch Commander Captain Clock pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (federal civil rights statute), for unreasonable seizure in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. The district court rejected the officers’ assertion of qualified immunity and the defendants appealed.

The decision of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals [1]

The court initially set forth the parameters of the qualified immunity defense for police officers. The court explained that officers are “entitled to qualified immunity unless: (1) the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, [2] establishes a violation of a constitutional or statutory right, and (2) the right was clearly established at the time of the violation, such that a reasonable official would have known that his actions were unlawful.”

The court examined the allegations of the plaintiffs and determined that “the witnesses here clearly did not consent to being taken to the police station for questioning.” Instead, they demanded to be taken to the hospital. The wife of the stabbing victim repeatedly insisted on going to the hospital and unambiguously informed the officers: “I would have never gotten in this car had I known they were taking me for questioning.”

Absent consent of the family members, the court next examined whether there was any other lawful justification for taking them to the police station against their will. The court cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Dunaway v. New York, [3] for the proposition that with a few narrow exceptions, “seizures are reasonable only if supported by probable cause.”

Realizing that probable cause to support the seizure and transportation of the family members was nonexistent, the officers argued that their detention of the family members should be viewed as a lawful Terry stop. [4] The court took notice of the fact that the officers admitted that they lacked probable cause and rejected their assertion that their actions could be justified as a lawful investigative detention pursuant to Terry.

The court observed that “An action tantamount to arrest has taken place if the officers conduct is more intrusive than necessary for an investigative stop.” [5] The court ruled: “Here, there was no minimally-intrusive Terry stop. Both the duration and the nature of this seizure exceed the bounds of the Constitution.”  

The court likewise ruled that the constitutional principle violated by officers here was clearly established at the time of this incident. The court explained that the Supreme Court “in Dunaway held that police violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments when, without probable cause, they seized petitioner and transported him to the police station for interrogation.” [6]

Lessons learned

  • Transporting a witness to a crime from the crime scene to the police station for interview must be based upon voluntary consent or probable cause that they have committed a crime.
  • Forcing crime witnesses to go to the station without their consent is a de facto arrest that must be supported by probable cause.
  • Reasonable suspicion that would justify a Terry stop, i.e., an investigative detention at the location of the stop, will not support transporting people from the place of the stop to the police station for interview or interrogation.
  • In the instant matter, the officers had neither probable cause nor reasonable suspicion to support their conduct. Even if reasonable suspicion were present, it would not support non-consensual transportation of witnesses to the police station.
  • The fact that officers violated constitutional law that was clearly established by the U.S. Supreme Court well before this incident, makes it possible that a police chief, and the municipality itself, could be successfully sued if officers were not properly trained on the issues raised by these circumstances. [7]

Conclusion

The defendant officers in this case erroneously thought that they had the lawful right to transport witnesses to a murder to the police station against their will, without consent and without probable cause. They were wrong. After admitting that they lacked probable cause to justify their actions, the officers tried to argue that what they performed was a valid Terry stop or an investigative detention. They were wrong again.

References

1. Davis v. Dawson et al., (No. 21-2419) (8th Cir. 5/10/22).

2. For purposes of deciding whether police officer defendants are entitled to qualified immunity in cases involving alleged violations of constitutional rights, federal appellate courts are bound by federal court procedure to accept disputed material facts offered by the plaintiffs unless there is clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, e.g., video evidence.

3. 442 U.S. 200, 214 (1979).

4. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21 (1968).

5. United States v. Rose, 731 F.2d 1337, 1342 (8th Cir. 1984, citing Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 504-505 (1983).

6. (Quoting) Dunaway, 442 U.S. at 216.

7. See, City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989), and Connick Thompson, 131 S. Ct. 1350 (2011).

NEXT: Eighth Circuit rejects qualified immunity for police supervisory and subordinate officers in crowd control operation

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