3/12/2013Federal Appeals Court Busts Police For Contempt Of Cop Arrest
Eleventh Circuit US Court of Appeals allows false arrest lawsuit to proceed against cops who arrested motorist for being up to no good.
A motorist who was less than cooperative when police performed a traffic stop on her property was vindicated Friday. A federal appeals court made it clear that taking a longer than expected time to produce identification and "being up to no good," was not grounds for arrest.
In an unpublished ruling, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit allowed Gina Petithomme to sue the Miami-Dade, Florida police department over the treatment she received at the hands of officers on February 6, 2009. Officers Ronald Martin and Jesus Gonzalez had been dispatched to investigate a suspicious White Dodge with two black men inside at the corner of 148th Street and Northwest 10th Place. Before reaching that location, the officers saw a silver Nissan with a piece of white paper allegedly blocking the license plate. The Nissan was parked on private property.
Petithomme, a black woman, was inside the Nissan when officers came on her property to say they were investigating a suspicious vehicle.
"What was the description of the vehicle?" Petithomme asked.
The officers did not say they were looking for a white Dodge, and asked Petithomme to produce identification and for permission to search her vehicle. Petithomme refused the search. On a third request for identification, Petithomme asked if she could go inside her home to retrieve it. It was granted, and as soon as she left the officers began searching through the Nissan. She returned and upon being asked a fourth time, she said the license must be in her car. She finally found it.
"Here's my identification," Petithomme said, holding within Officer Martin's line of vision.
Enraged, Officer Martin arrested Petithomme on the spot, charging her with disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace. The officers said the woman's attitude showed she was "up to no good." The court of appeals disagreed.
"Plaintiff's questions directed towards the officers cannot demonstrate arguable probable cause for disorderly conduct," the court ruled in a per curiam decision. "Under Florida law, screaming obscenities at an officer is not sufficient to violate the statute, and thus, no reasonable officer could have concluded that asking an officer a benign question could constitute a violation of the statute."
Petithomme successfully argued her Fourth Amendment rights had been violated with an illegal search.
"Here, plaintiff and her vehicle did not match the descriptions or the location given by dispatch," the court found. "Thus, the only circumstances suggesting illegal activity was the white paper obstructing plaintiff's tag. The obstructed tag, however, is insufficient to lead a reasonable person to believe that evidence relating to this infraction would be found inside the vehicle."
Because official immunity cannot be granted to an officer who violates a constitutional right, Officers Martin and Gonzalez are now liable for damages in Petithomme's false arrest lawsuit.
A copy of the decision is available in a 70k PDF file at the source link below.