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Crocket Middle School is part of the Ector County Independent School District (District). On November 1, 2019, Officer Terry Henkell, a member of the District’s police department, received a call from a female seventh grader at Crocket. The student claimed that, on October 23, 2019, her substitute teacher, Mr. Carrasco, inappropriately touched her breast.
Over the next several days, Henkell interviewed the victim and other students, learning that Mr. Carrasco had been substituting at Crocket for the past three weeks, was about 21 years of age, was Mexican American, and had brown eyes. Henkell also learned about the teacher’s TikTok account (“mlpcrybaby5”), which he advertised to students. Finally, Henkell obtained from the District’s human resources office the names and contact information of three persons surnamed “Carrasco” employed by the District, one of whom was Erik Carrasco.
On November 12, 2019, Henkell phoned one of the other Carrascos on the list but got no answer. Later that day, without calling the other two numbers, Henkell swore out an affidavit to arrest Erik for the crime of Indecency with a Child, a second degree felony under Texas law. The affidavit summarized the touching incident according to the accounts of the victim and witnesses. It identified the suspect as “Erik Carrasco,” a “white male,” with a date of birth making him 29 years old. It also mentioned that the suspect talked to students “about Tik Tok.” The affidavit, however, did not explain how Henkell’s investigation linked Erik to the touching incident, nor did it mention that Henkell had been given the names and contact information of two other “Carrascos” employed by the District.
Erik was arrested and charged with two felonies: Indecency with a Child and Sexual Contact and Improper Relationship between Educator and Student. He lost his job and had to hire an attorney, post bond, and abide by special bond conditions. The charges against Erik were dropped, however, when it came to light that he was the wrong Carrasco. True, both Erik and the real suspect taught in the District and both were Hispanic. But it turned out that Erik was a tutor at Ector Middle School, not a substitute teacher at Crocket. Eric was 29, not 21, and he had hazel eyes, not brown eyes. And the TikTok account contained a photo of the real suspect that did not look like Erik.
Erik sued Henkell under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for false arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Specifically, Erik alleged that Henkell recklessly omitted material facts from his affidavit that, had they been included, would have negated probable cause to arrest him. He sought damages for emotional distress, deprivation of liberty, loss of income, and damage to his reputation. He also sought attorney’s fees and punitive damages.
The district court denied Henkell’s motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity. The 5th reversed and rendered judgment granting Henkell qualified immunity. Even if Henkell violated the Fourth Amendment, something we do not decide, Carrasco has not identified a single controlling precedent showing that Henkell transgressed clearly established law.
To overcome qualified immunity, Carrasco has the burden to (1) sufficiently plead that Henkell violated the Fourth Amendment, and (2) show that the violation was clearly established at the time of the alleged misconduct. On appeal, Henkell properly limits his arguments to the second prong. Specifically, Henkell argues that Carrasco failed to identify controlling precedent showing that he violated clearly established law and that, accordingly, the district court erred in denying his motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity. We agree.
According to Erik’s allegations, Henkell violated the Fourth Amendment by submitting an affidavit that recklessly omitted facts that would have defeated probable cause. Specifically, he alleges that Henkell left out the facts that two other District employees shared Erik’s last name and that Henkell had not ruled out those persons before seeking a warrant to arrest Erik. The district court agreed.
Citing the now-vacated panel opinion in Villarreal, the court reasoned that Henkell’s failure to eliminate suspects with the same last name constituted an obvious violation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Franks, 438 U.S. 154 (1978). Franks held that the Fourth Amendment entitles a defendant to a hearing on the veracity of a warrant affidavit if he can show deliberate falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth that would defeat probable cause.
In qualified immunity cases, courts must not define clearly established law at too high a level of generality. To be clearly established, a right must be sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right. See Betts. Accordingly, the right must be framed with specificity and granularity. Qualified immunity thus shields officers unless existing precedent squarely governs the specific facts at issue, and puts that question beyond debate. See SCOTUS Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731 (2011).
Those well-settled principles lead us to disagree with the district court’s denial of qualified immunity. Instead of framing the claimed right with specificity, the court only recited the general contours of Franks liability. But the court did not identify a single controlling precedent holding that an officer who fails to rule out other suspects with the same last name and similar relevant characteristics necessarily exhibits a reckless disregard for the truth or states a deliberate falsehood.
Indeed, Erik’s counsel admitted the lack of such precedent at oral argument. To defeat qualified immunity, however, much more is needed than the ostensible violation of a general legal principle. A court cannot deny qualified immunity without identifying a case in which an officer acting under similar circumstances was held to have violated the Fourth Amendment, and without explaining why the case clearly proscribed the conduct of that individual officer.
Indeed, controlling precedent cuts against Carrasco’s position. For instance, in Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137 (1979), SCOTUS held that a sheriff did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he arrested Leonard McCollan instead of Linnie McCollan, despite the fact that the suspect’s available picture would have alerted the sheriff that Leonard was the wrong man. As the Court explained, given the requirements that arrest be made only on probable cause and that one detained be accorded a speedy trial, we do not think a sheriff executing an arrest warrant is required by the Constitution to investigate independently every claim of innocence.
Our court has also granted qualified immunity in similar cases. For instance, in Nerio, we granted qualified immunity against a Franks claim to officers who mistakenly arrested a man with the same name as the suspect (the two men were half-brothers). Similarly, in Bosarge, we held it was not a violation of clearly established law when narcotics agents wrongly identified the plaintiff as a participant in a drug ring and caused him to be detained for six months. We explained that it is well-established that reasonable mistakes by police officers, even leading to the arrest of the wrong person, do not implicate the Fourth Amendment.
Because no controlling precedent would have given Henkell fair notice that his conduct was unconstitutional, he is entitled to qualified immunity. By resolving the case on this basis, we necessarily express no opinion whether Henkell’s actions, as alleged in the complaint, violated the Fourth Amendment.
We REVERSE the district court’s judgment and RENDER judgment dismissing the case against Officer Henkell on the basis of qualified immunity.