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First Circuit Denies Qualified Immunity to Police Officer for Arrest Without Probable Cause

by Lonnie Burton

On February 1, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit set aside a lower court ruling which granted summary judgment to a police officer who was sued for arresting a man without probable cause. The court, which included retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter sitting by designation, found that controlling precedent provided clear notice that the Fourth Amendment requires probable cause before a police officer places someone under arrest and therefore the defense of qualified immunity was not properly applied by the district court.

The case began early in the Morning of July 11, 2014, when Peter Alfano was detained when he tried to enter a concert in Mansfield, Massachusetts. A security guard suspected the Alfano, who admittedly had drank six to eight beers earlier in the night, was drunk. Alfano was pulled out of line and directed to another security area for further screening.

There, an off-duty police officer from a nearby town, Thomas Lynch, determined that Alfano was an "incapacitated" person under a Massachusetts law that allows authorities to a take a person into "protective custody" if it is determined that "by reason of the consumption of intoxicating liquor he is . . . likely to suffer or cause physical harm or damage to property." See Mass. Gen Laws. ch. 111B, § 8. After Alfano refused to take a breathalyzer test, Lynch handcuffed him to a bench and later transported him to the police station and put him in a holding cell. Five hours later, longafter the concert was over, Alfano was released.

Alfano sued Lynch in federal court, alleging that Lynch lacked probable cause to arrest him and thus violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures. Lynch moved for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. The district court found that the law was not clearly established as to a police officer's need for probable cause, agreed with Lynch, and dismissed the case. Alfano appealed.

In reversing and remanding, the First Circuit found that it "is a hornbrook law that the Fourth Amendment requires probable cause to place an individual under arrest." The court found that "protective custody" was similar enough to an arrest to draw no legal distinction between the two because the effect was the same: the person loses his or her freedom.

The Second Circuit pointed out that even the Massachusetts Supreme Court held in 2001 that probable cause was required prior to taking someone into protective custody under the incapacitated person statute. See Commonwealth v. O'Brien, 750 N.E.2d 1000 (Mass. 2001). “To say more about the clearly, established nature of the law would be to paint the lily," wrote the Second Circuit.

Using the facts in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party as required in summary judgment motions, the Second Circuit found that Alfano alleged sufficient facts for a jury to conclude that Lynch lacked probable cause to believe Alfano was a danger to himself or others, and thus summary judgment was improperly granted in Lynch's favor.

"For the reasons elucidated above, we vacate the entry of summary judgment and remand for further proceedings," the court concluded. The court also awarded Alfano his costs on appeal. See: Alfano v. Lynch, No. 16-1914 (1st Cir. 2017).

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Related legal case

Alfano v. Lynch