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Officers improperly arrested men for failure to provide identification

A recent case takes a look at an alleged false arrest for the failure to produce identification during an investigation

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Every case holds several “could have, should have, would have” lessons.

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EDGER V. MCCABE, 2023 WL 6937465 (11th Cir. 2023)

In the article about Johnson v. Nocco, we noted that the rules about demanding identification are tricky and depend on state law in most situations. The case of Edger v. McCabe illustrates the application of state law and the importance of full understanding of the particular laws governing whether a person must produce identification and/or answer questions.

A long-time client called Roland Edger, a mechanic who operates an auto repair business, and told him his Toyota Camry had broken down while his wife was working at a local church. The client asked Edger to fix the car and told him the keys would be waiting for him at the church’s front office. Edger went to the church, obtained the keys and inspected the Camry. He determined he would need to come back later with additional tools to fix the car. That evening, he returned to the church with his stepson, intending to either fix the Camry on-site or take it back to the shop for further repairs.

A church security guard saw Edger and his stepson working on the Camry. The guard called 911 and told dispatch: “I have two Hispanic males, messing with an employee’s car that was left on the lot.” Officer McCabe arrived and began a cordial conversation. Edger explained he was repairing a customer’s car and identified the car owner. The Camry slipped off the jack and hit the ground as Officer Perillat arrived. He approached Edger from behind.

Officer McCabe asked Edger to produce a driver’s license or other identification. Edger responded, “I ain’t going to submit to no ID. Listen, you call the lady right now. Listen I don’t have time for this. I don’t mean to be rude, or ugly, but …” Officer McCabe asked Edger if he was refusing to provide identification. Neither officer asked Edger or his son for their names.

As Edger explained that the car owner would verify he was supposed to be working on the car, Officer Perillat grabbed Edger from the rear and handcuffed him, telling Edger, “We don’t have time for this. You don’t understand the law.” Edger then offered to show his driver’s license three times as he was being handcuffed and placed in a patrol car. The encounter was captured on two body-worn cameras and two dash cameras. Edger was charged with obstructing government operations. The prosecutor dismissed the charges.

Edger sued, alleging false arrest. The trial court concluded the officers were entitled to qualified immunity, and Edger appealed.

The first question is not whether there was probable cause for the officers to arrest Edger, but whether there was arguable probable cause to arrest him. When considering a claim of false arrest, the court asks whether “a reasonable officer, looking at the entire legal landscape at the time of the arrests, could have interpreted the law as permitting the arrests” (District of Columbia v. Wesby, 583 U.S. 48 (2018)). If officers had arguable probable cause, their violation of constitutional law was not clearly established. To the contrary, if no reasonable officer could have interpreted the law as permitting the arrest, the law was clearly established.

The officers first claimed Edger used “physical force or interference” to their investigation. They argued Edger had threatened Officer McCabe because Edger had “jumped up” and “waved his hands” when the Camry slipped off the jack and hit the ground. The video recordings from four different angles made quick work of that claim. Judges viewed the recordings and noted Edger was “clearly frustrated,” but he didn’t move from his position near the car and his hands were empty. The panel agreed, “No reasonable officer could have observed Edger and concluded he was using intimidation or physical force to intentionally obstruct” the officers’ investigation: “No reasonable police officer could conclude that Edger violated the obstruction statute, and therefore there was no probable cause to support Edger’s arrest.”

The officers alternatively argued Edger committed an “independently unlawful act” by refusing to identify himself. Perhaps Edger did not, as Officer Perillat claimed, understand the law. But he didn’t violate it either. The statute requires only that a person answer questions about their name, address and purpose. Edger explained what he was doing, but neither officer ever asked for his name or address prior to Officer Perillat grabbing him from behind and handcuffing him. The court observed Edger was trying to talk to the officers when “he was abruptly arrested by Officer Perillat.”

The trial court interpreted the statute requiring identification as encompassing a demand for a physical document. The appellate court disagreed. As noted in our discussion of Johnson v. Nocco, officers may ask questions of a person and make consensual requests, “as long as the police do not convey a message that compliance is required” (Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429 (1991)). Moreover, in this case, the statute at issue lists only three things officers may ask. The court noted, “There is a difference between asking for specific information: What is your name? Where do you live? and demanding a physical license or ID.”

The appellate court held, “It has been clearly established for decades” that the police are free to ask questions and the public is free to ignore them. “The state statute itself in this case is clear and requires no additional construction: police are empowered to demand from an individual three things: name, address and an explanation of his actions.” The court held it was also clearly established at the time of Edger’s arrest that the officers could not demand physical identification from him in those circumstances. Because the officers violated clearly established law, they could not benefit from qualified immunity.

Every case holds several “could have, should have, would have” lessons. Would Edger have given his name and address if asked by an officer talking nice? Would a brief phone call to the car owner have halted the investigation? Would a more thoughtful security guard have checked with the car owner, a church employee, and avoided the call to the police in the first place? One of the officers claimed there wasn’t time and that Edger didn’t understand the law. The court disagreed on the latter point, ruling the officer didn’t understand — or just didn’t follow — the law. We talk about time and distance in tactical situations. Perhaps investing a moment of time to be slightly more patient would have avoided years of litigation and a clear legal victory for Edger.

Read more Ken Wallentine case reviews here.

A police officer and former prosecutor, Ken Wallentine is Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. Traffic detentions and passenger issues are discussed in his new book, Street Legal: A Guide to Pre-trial Criminal Procedure for Police, Prosecutors, and Defenders, published by the American Bar Association Press.
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