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husband interfered with investigation by refusing to allow wife to show license and insurance

Facts

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On September 2, 2022, Rachael Hall, Randal Hall’s wife, was in a minor automobile accident in a parking lot. Following the fender bender, she and the other party exchanged insurance information. Hall claims that it was not his wife’s fault; however, when she left the scene, the other driver called the police and informed them that he had been involved in a hit and run. An investigation ensued. Only the events following the investigation are at issue in this matter.

Police Officer Travis Trochesset investigated the car wreck. On the same day of the wreck, Trochesset arrived at the Halls’ home. Rachael answered the door, and he asked to see her driver’s license and insurance information to investigate the wreck. According to Trochesset, Rachael intended to comply with his instructions, and she went into the house to retrieve the requested items. At this time, Randal was approximately 90 miles away in El Campo, Texas.

When she came back to the door, she was on the phone with Randal. Randal wished to speak to Trochesset. According to Randal, he had a respectful conversation with Trochesset about why his wife would not be providing him the requested information and said he would be willing to provide the information in an alternative manner. Trochesset’s version of the conversation is similar. He stated that after disclosing to Randal why he was there, Randal told Trochesset that he felt his wife and family would be unsafe if this information were disclosed and that he would instead give the information to the chief of police.

After the Halls refused to comply with the investigation, Trochesset left their home. He subsequently went to a Justice of the Peace and obtained a Warrant of Arrest for Randal Hall based on the offense of interfering with public duties. A Complaint and Probable Cause Affidavit are associated with the Warrant of Arrest. Trochesset and Hall agree that the contents of the probable cause affidavit are consistent with the allegations in the lawsuit complaint, but the affidavit provides more specific details.

The Probable Cause Affidavit states the following. While Trochesset was performing a duty or exercising authority imposed or granted by law, here a criminal investigation, Randal Hall, with criminal negligence, interrupted, disrupted, impeded, or interfered with Trochesset by instructing his wife not to comply with Trochesset’s investigation in violation of statute TRC 550.023.2 Hall’s actions were in violation of Interfere with Public Duties 38.15(g)3 Penal Code MB, CJIS-73991084. Trochesset stated in the Affidavit that after he arrived at the Hall’s home and asked Rachael for the requested information, she initially complied. However, she called her husband who wished to speak to Trochesset. Trochesset explained to Hall why he was there and that it was part of an investigation. Hall then told Trochesset that Rachael was previously stalked after an accident when her information was given. Randal informed Trochesset that he and Rachael would give her information to Chief Ratliff, but he would not let her give her license to someone with their home address on it. After Trochesset again explained to Hall that this was part of the ongoing investigation, Hall reiterated that Rachael would provide the information to Chief Ratliff but not Trochesset. For the third time, Trochesset explained the process to the Halls, but Hall again told Trochesset that his wife was not going to provide the requested information and that he was going to contact his attorney. After this back and forth, Randal instructed Rachael to only provide her cell phone number and nothing else to Trochesset. She then went into the home and locked the door.

Trochesset asserted in the Affidavit that Randal interfered with his ability to conduct a proper investigation, which required obtaining Rachael’s vehicle information and driver’s license information, because he instructed Rachael to not provide the information to Trochesset. A warrant request was then completed for Interference with Public Duties. On September 18, 2022, Randal Hall was arrested at his home pursuant to a warrant issued by a judge. The charges were dropped because the Galveston County District Attorney declined to prosecute the charge.

On October 3, 2022, Hall filed suit against Officer Trochesset and the City of League City, Texas. On May 17, 2023, the district court granted Trochesset and the City’s motion to dismiss. The 5th affirmed.

Analysis

A. Constitutional Violation

Here, Hall argues that Trochesset violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments because he arrested him without probable cause. He also argues that he was “chilled” from exercising his First Amendment right to speak with police officers and that the conversation over the phone, which was a protected activity under the First Amendment, was the only motivation for the arrest.

The Constitution does not guarantee that only the guilty will be arrested. If it did, § 1983 would provide a cause of action for every defendant acquitted—indeed for every suspect released. See SCOTUS Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137 (1979). The Fourth Amendment requires that an arrest be supported by a properly issued arrest warrant or probable cause. See Glenn. Under the prevailing view in this country a peace officer who arrests someone with probable cause is not liable for false arrest even if the innocence of the suspect is later proved. See SCOTUS Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547 (1967).

Our cases make clear that an arresting officer’s state of mind is irrelevant to the existence of probable cause. See SCOTUS Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996). Evenhanded law enforcement is best achieved by the application of objective standards of conduct, rather than standards that depend upon the subjective state of mind of the officer. See SCOTUS Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990).

Probable cause to arrest is not a high bar. See SCOTUS Kaley v. United States, 571 U.S. 320 (2014). It requires only a probability or substantial chance of criminal activity, not an actual showing of such activity. And in the qualified immunity context, even law enforcement officials who reasonably but mistakenly conclude that probable cause is present are entitled to immunity. See Mendenhall.

The district court properly found that probable cause existed in this matter pursuant to the independent intermediary doctrine. Under this doctrine, even an officer who acted with malice will not be liable if the facts supporting the warrant or indictment are put before an impartial intermediary such as a magistrate or a grand jury, for that intermediary’s independent’ decision breaks the causal chain and insulates the initiating party. See Hand v. Gary, 838 F.2d 1420 (5th Cir. 1988).

The independent intermediary doctrine applies here. Trochesset provided a Probable Cause Affidavit to a justice of the peace, who then issued an arrest warrant. The facts in the probable cause affidavit align with the facts presented by Hall. Hall has failed to present any argument showing Trochesset had malicious motive that led him to withhold any relevant information from the intermediary, thereby tainting the independent intermediary. Accordingly, probable cause exists in this case, and Hall has failed to establish that Trochesset violated the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

Hall’s argument that he did not violate the interference statute because of the speech-only defense is without merit. First, Hall’s actions violated Texas law when he interfered with Trochesset’s investigation. This “speech-only” defense is a defense to prosecution under Texas criminal law (see Tex. Pen. Code § 2.03), which is of no consequence to the argument that probable cause is lacking.

B. Qualified Immunity

Police officers are entitled to qualified immunity unless existing precedent squarely governs the specific facts at issue. See SCOTUS Kisela v. Hughes, 138 S.Ct. 1148 (2018).

Hall cites to SCOTUS Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335 (1986), to assert that there is a clearly established right here. He argues that even if the independent intermediary doctrine applies, then his claim is still successful under Malley. Specifically, Hall asserts that Trochesset was wrong in relying on the arrest warrant because his affidavit was so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence unreasonable.

Hall argues that a reasonable officer in Trochesset’s position would have known that probable cause did not exist because of the speech-only defense. This Court has held that an arrestee’s command to another to disobey a police officer’s lawful order does not fall within the speech defense. The facts show that Hall told Trochesset three times that his wife was not going to provide the requested information. Hall also instructed his wife not to comply with the requests of Trochesset, which led to her going inside the house and shutting the door on Trochesset. Thus, an officer in Trochesset’s position could reasonably believe that Appellant’s conduct did not fall within the speech defense.

Accordingly, even if Hall’s actions did fall within the clearly established law of the speech defense, which the facts indicate they did not, then Trochesset is still shielded by the independent intermediary doctrine. Thus, Hall has failed to state plausible claims against Trochesset that overcome his qualified immunity defense.

C. Municipal Liability

Next, Hall asserts liability on the City of League City, Texas, based upon Monell liability. In Monell v. Dept. of Soc. Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), SCOTUS found that municipalities can be held liable for the constitutional violations which arise from enforcement of the municipalities policies and procedures, but the municipality cannot be held liable for constitutional torts of their employees under the doctrine of respondeat superior. To hold a municipality liable under § 1983, a plaintiff must identify (1) an official policy or custom, of which (2) a policymaker can be charged with actual or constructive knowledge, and (3) a constitutional violation whose “moving force” is that of policy or custom.

First, because there was no constitutional violation by Trochesset, there can be no liability against League City. See Windham.

Second, Hall has not identified an official policy or custom of League City that was the moving force or cause of the alleged violation. Hall instead asserts that there was a need for a policy and an absence of or failure to adopt an appropriate policy. Specifically, Hall asserts that there was a lack of training or insufficient training on the boundaries of the interference statute, a widespread pattern or practice of arrests based on speech-only interference charges, and ratification of Trochesset’s actions both by conducting and reviewing the arrest. Hall asserts that he is unable to point to a specific policy because the information is possessed solely by the City, and he cannot access it because discovery has not been conducted. Insofar as Hall makes this policy argument as it relates to municipal liability, he is unable to show how the policy or lack thereof caused his arrest. As stated above, there was probable cause to make this arrest, so, again, this argument is defeated by the independent intermediary doctrine.

Hall has failed to allege facts stating a plausible claim for relief against the City of League City, Texas, under municipal liability.

 

https://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/23/23-40362-CV0.pdf