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Fifth Circuit Denied Claim of Immunity by Sheriff's Deputy, Rejects His Appeal in Fourth Amendment False Arrest Lawsuit

On September 14, 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied the appeal of a Hunt County, Texas, sheriff's deputy who claimed the lawsuit against him for false arrest should be dismissed because he did not actually participate in the arrest of the plaintiff nor sign the affidavit in support of the arrest warrant. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of summary judgment sought by the deputy and remanded the case for trial.

The case started in June 2009, when Hunt County sheriff's deputy Kelly D. Phillips interviewed an alleged assault victim who identified his attacker as his wife's boyfriend at the time, a man named Michael Melton. Phillips then entered the name "Michael Melton" into a police database, and later submitted an offense report containing the identity of the first name that registered as a hit, the plaintiff Michael David Melton. Phillips did no further research to confirm that plaintiff Melton was the suspected assailant.

In July 2010, the state prosecutor filed a criminal complaint against Melton charging him with the assault, based on the report submitted by Phillips. Melton was arrested and spent 16 days in jail before he was released on bond. Two years later, the charges were dismissed when it was confirmed that Melton was indeed the wrong "Michael Melton," and that Phillips had misidentified him as the assailant.

Melton then sued Phillips, and other defendants, alleging that Phillips "intentionally or recklessly misidentified him as the assailant in the offense report, thereby leading to his false arrest without probable cause," in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Phillips moved to dismiss, claiming he cannot be held liable because he neither signed nor drafted the affidavit in support of the arrest warrant. The district court denied Phillips' motion, holding that Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154 (1978) precluded his immunity argument. The district court also found there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Phillips was reckless in identifying Melton as the assailant in the offense report.

Phillips appealed prior to trial, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. Under Franks, the court said that there is a cause of action when a search warrant contains false information in which the affiant "knowingly and intentionally, or with a reckless disregard for the truth," included in the application. The appellate court said that the case of Hart v. O'Brien, 127 F.3d 434 (5th Cir. 1997) extended Franks' reasoning to cases where the government official was not the affiant.

"An officer who deliberately or recklessly provides false or misleading information for use in an affidavit in support of a warrant" may be held liable for Fourth Amendment violations, the court ruled, rejecting Philips' claim of immunity.

The Fifth Circuit also found that it lacked jurisdiction to decide Philips' appeal with regard to whether Phillips was in fact reckless in preparing the offense report. Because this was an interlocutory appeal from the denial of summary judgment, "we lack the jurisdiction to review the genuineness of a fact issue," the court ruled.

Lastly, the Fifth Circuit rejected Phillips' contention that the "independent intermediary doctrine" precludes liability in this case. In essence, Phillips asserted that because a magistrate judge actually issued the arrest warrant, that broke the "causal chain" and insulated him from liability. But when an officer "intentionally or recklessly" misrepresents the facts by falsely identifying the plaintiff as the assailant, the court said, the county judge's decision was thus tainted by that action and the "doctrine does not apply to shield Phillips from liability."

The appeal was dismissed and the case remanded to district court to resume the proceedings. See Melton v. Phillips, No. 15-10604 (5th Cir. 2016).

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Related legal case

Melton v. Phillips