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Claiming self defense does not mean there was not sufficient probable cause for an arrest

Facts

Joshua Loftin lived at 1609 Williams Street in Prentiss, Mississippi for ten years. While living at that address, he filed numerous noise complaints (more than 50) with the local police department, complaining that vehicles parked outside or passing by were playing music at a deafening volume, in violation of a city noise ordinance.

The police responded to some of Loftin’s complaints and even cited individuals on one or two occasions. In Loftin’s view, however, the police did not take his complaints seriously enough. He started taking matters into his own hands by confronting people who played loud music near his home.

In 2017, Loftin was at home when he heard the distinctive buzz of a subwoofer reverberating through his walls. Loftin rushed to the window to see who was causing the ruckus and saw a green Mercury Marquis not far from his house. The Marquis departed, however, before Loftin could make it outside to confront whoever was driving the car.

Loftin followed the car and at an intersection known as “Greasy Line,” confronted the driver, later identified as Dontarious Walker, about the volume of his music, telling Walker that he had the Marquis’s license plate number and that he would turn it over to the police if Walker did not desist in disturbing him.

Walker allegedly responded by brandishing a Glock like handgun and threatening to shoot Loftin. Loftin drew his gun and shot Walker in the arm. Both Loftin and Walker drove away; Loftin to his home and Walker to the hospital.

Police responded to Greasy Line and saw a man, Javarious McInnis, who threw a glock handgun into the bushes and fled. When caught, McInnis said he fled because he thought there was a warrant out for his arrest. Two of Walker’s uncles, who had spoken to Walker, confirmed that McInnis was not involved in the altercation.

Meanwhile, Loftin met officers in his driveway and told them that he shot Walker in self-defense. Loftin was then arrested for aggravated assault. Loftin was found guilty but received a new trial because of an unrelated legal issue. The State did not retry Loftin because the victim moved out of Mississippi.

Loftin then sued the City of Prentiss and the officers under 42 § 1983, alleging that he was arrested without probable cause, the affidavit left out key information about McInnis, and the City of Prentiss was liable based on its policies and customs. The trial judge found in favor of defendants on all issues. 5th affirmed.

Analysis

A. Arrest without probable cause (4th amendment violation)

We said in Kleinert that probable cause for a warrantless arrest exists when all of the facts known by a police officer are sufficient for a reasonable person to conclude that the suspect had committed, or was in the process of committing, an offense.

Officer Stephen Jones and Chief Joseph Bullock arrested Loftin for aggravated assault without first securing a warrant. A person commits aggravated assault in Mississippi if he attempts to cause or purposely or knowingly causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon or other means likely to produce death or serious bodily harm. Miss. Code Ann. § 97-3-7(2)(a)(ii).

At the time of Loftin’s arrest, Jones and Bullock were aware of the following undisputed facts: (1) an unidentified person called in a shooting near Greasy Line; (2) one person was injured in the shooting; (3) bystanders at the scene of the shooting identified Loftin as the shooter; (4) Loftin himself called the Prentiss Police Department to confess that he shot someone and wanted to make a statement; and (5) after arriving at Loftin’s house, Loftin again admitted to shooting Walker and claimed that, because Walker brandished a weapon, he did so in self-defense.

These facts are undeniably sufficient for a reasonable person to conclude that Loftin had committed aggravated assault. Loftin argued that the above stated facts do not support probable cause because he consistently maintained that he shot Walker in self defense and the officers had no evidence suggesting otherwise.

A soon to be arrestee’s naked assertion of self-defense under these circumstances does not vitiate probable cause. Otherwise, every suspect for a litany of violent crimes could avoid, or delay, arrest by simply proclaiming self defense. Thus, Jones and Bullock had probable cause to arrest Loftin.

B. Qualified Immunity

The U.S. Supreme Court said in Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194 (2004) that even if an officer arrests someone without probable cause, qualified immunity immunizes the officer from suit unless that officer had fair notice that his conduct was unlawful.

Loftin would have to identify a case where an officer acting under similar circumstances was held to have violated the Fourth Amendment by arresting someone without probable cause. Loftin does not even attempt to identify a case where a court found that an officer violated the Fourth Amendment in similar circumstances.

Therefore, Jones and Bullock would be entitled to qualified immunity even if they lacked probable cause for the initial warrantless arrest.

C. Affidavit did not mention McInnis

We said in Reyna that if facts supporting an arrest are placed before an independent intermediary such as a magistrate or grand jury, the intermediary’s decision breaks the chain of causation for false arrest, insulating the initiating party.

But the independent intermediary doctrine is not absolute. In Anokwuru, we said that the chain of causation remains intact if the officer taints the intermediary’s decision by deliberately or recklessly providing false, material information for use in an affidavit or making knowing and intentional omissions that result in a warrant being issued without probable cause.

In Kohler, we said to determine whether facts omitted from a warrant affidavit are material to the determination of probable cause, courts ordinarily insert the omitted facts into the affidavit and ask whether the reconstructed affidavit would still support a finding of probable cause.

Loftin complains that Bullock’s affidavit omitted information relating to his claim of self defense and to the gun McInnis ditched while fleeing from the scene of the crime, which matched the description for the weapon that Walker allegedly brandished.

But even if the warrant affidavit included that information, it would still satisfy the low probable cause threshold. As explained, a suspect’s declaration of innocence does not vitiate probable cause. Moreover, Loftin far overstates the exculpatory value of the fact that McInnis fled the scene of the crime carrying a weapon that matches Loftin’s description of the weapon that Walker allegedly brandished.

Officers familiar with McInnis knew that he regularly carried a Glock— perhaps the most popular handgun in the United States. And bystanders at the scene told officers that McInnis was not involved in the shooting.

What is more, a complete affidavit would state that Loftin armed himself and chased Walker down after Walker drove by Loftin’s house playing loud music. Moreover, it would disclose that Walker denied having a weapon during the confrontation. If anything, these additional facts would only strengthen the already solid basis for probable cause. We therefore conclude that Bullock did not omit material facts from the warrant affidavit.

D. Municipal liability

We said in Garza that without a predicate constitutional violation, there can be no Monell liability. Because Loftin failed to demonstrate any constitutional violation relating to either his April 17th or April 19th arrests, the associated Monell claims must also fail.

 

https://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/21/21-60611-CV0.pdf