officer’s investigation was reasonable and led to probable cause


(If you are new to 1983 actions, click here for help)

Stephanie Springer owns and operates a gym, Texas Fitt, where Dare Matthews trained for roughly one month. During this period, she states that she had only limited interactions with Springer, having only exchanged “courtesy hellos” on one occasion.

Matthews and Springer’s relationship quickly changed from limited and pleasant to frequent and aggressive as the parties bickered with each other on numerous occasions from September 2019 to May 2020. These exchanges included: (1) phone calls to the Pantego Police Department and Arlington Police Department (“APD”), (2) a flurry of harassing phone calls and threatening emails, (3) harassment on social media, (4) a cease-and- desist letter instructing Springer to stop bothering Matthews, and (5) discussions of potential physical altercations.

In April 2020, Springer contacted APD and her case was assigned to Detective E. Green. Springer told Green that Matthews had engaged in a string of harassing and intimidating conduct over the last year. Specifically, she accused Matthews of: (1) sabotaging her businesses by leaving hundreds of one-star reviews on Google and Yelp; (2) following Springer and her husband around town; (3) repeatedly sending her derogatory, profane emails; and (4) taking pictures of her minor daughter and emailing them to her.

Green decided that he had enough information to seek an arrest warrant for Matthews, completed an affidavit, and provided it to a magistrate judge. In the affidavit, he testified that Matthews sent several obscene and sexually provocative emails in violation of Texas Penal Code § 42.07(a)(1). The magistrate judge signed the warrant and Matthews was eventually arrested for 18 hours. During her arrest, she claims that she was subject to excessive physical searches, injection with an unknown substance, extreme unsanitary conditions, and confinement in a bathroom. Matthews was released the next day. As a condition of her release, she agreed to not possess any firearms or consume alcohol. This restriction lasted for two years, ending after the prosecution dropped all charges against her.

Matthews sued Green under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Matthews alleged that Green violated her Fourth Amendment rights by arresting her without probable cause and triggering her prosecution without probable cause. The district court granted Green qualified immunity on each of Matthews’s claims. It began with federal conspiracy, holding that Matthews had not pleaded that Green and Springer ever came to an agreement to violate her Fourth Amendment rights. It moved on to false arrest, rejecting the claim because Matthews did not assert facts that Green knew that Springer’s complaints were baseless. Finally, it rejected Matthews’s malicious prosecution claims against Green because she offered no caselaw establishing Green’s conduct as violative of clearly established law. Matthews timely appealed. The 5th affirmed.


Matthews argues that Green violated her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by subjecting her to an arrest and subsequent prosecution without probable cause. She further avers that Green is not entitled to qualified immunity because his conduct is a clearly established violation of her constitutional rights. We disagree.

Qualified immunity protects public officials from civil liability when they lack notice that their conduct is unlawful. When a defendant invokes qualified immunity, the burden is on the plaintiff to demonstrate the inapplicability of the defense. This requires a plaintiff to allege: (1) the violation of a federal constitutional or statutory right; and (2) that the right was clearly established at the time.

A constitutional claim for false arrest requires a showing of no probable cause. See Club Retro. A claim of malicious prosecution requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that: (1) the suit or proceeding was instituted without any probable cause; (2) the motive in instituting the suit was malicious; and (3) the prosecution terminated in favor of the accused. See Armstrong.

Probable cause is established by the facts and circumstances within the officer’s knowledge that are sufficient to warrant a prudent person, or one of reasonable caution, in believing, in the circumstances shown, that the suspect has committed, is committing, or is about to commit an offense. See Piazza. The probable cause analysis does not demand any showing that the belief that an offense was committed be correct or more likely true than false. Rather, it requires us to find a basis for an officer to believe to a ‘fair probability’ that a violation occurred.

Matthews’s arguments regarding Green turn on whether the detective violated her constitutional right to be free from false arrests and malicious prosecution. Each contention requires Green to have acted in the absence of probable cause. Accordingly, our first and only inquiry is whether Green had probable cause when seeking and obtaining a warrant for Matthews’s arrest. We hold that he did, so he is entitled to qualified immunity.

Matthews primarily asserts that Green did not have probable cause supporting a warrant for her arrest because he did no corroboration or independent police work whatsoever to validate his warrant affidavit. She insists that Green’s decision to simply trust Springer’s side of the story when drafting and submitting his affidavit disqualifies him from having probable cause. But whether Green investigated Springer’s claims to her satisfaction is not the standard. The probable cause standard sounds in reasonableness and is entirely objective.

In other words, our task is not evaluating whether Green could have gathered more facts to Matthews’s liking. Instead, it is simply to gauge whether he had enough facts, from any source, to reasonably conclude that Matthews violated Texas Penal Code § 42.07(a)(1). Here, the record is replete with more than enough facts to seek a warrant for Matthews’s allegedly “obscene” emails, phone calls, and social media messaging exchanges.

Matthews takes issue with the fact that Green didn’t ask if she initiated the communication, as required by § 42.07(a)(1). But she offers no caselaw supporting her position that Green was required to do so before seeking a warrant. And given the sheer number of emails, texts, and social media messages, we agree that it was reasonable for Green to proceed on the information he obtained from Springer at the time. At bottom, Green believed to a fair probability that a violation occurred. Because Matthews pleaded facts establishing Green’s probable cause for arresting her under state law, he did not violate her Fourth or Fourteenth Amendment rights and is therefore entitled to qualified immunity from Matthews’s suit.