Malicious Prosecution Another Form of Injury Suffered by Public

A sheriff candidate for Concordia Parish, James Whittington, sued his opponent, Sheriff Randy Maxwell, for malicious prosecution and violating both his Fourth Amendment and First Amendment rights.

During the sheriff election campaign, Whittington ran several ads in the local newspaper including several that described misconduct that had allegedly taken place in the Sheriff’s Office during Maxwell’s term. Specifically, Whittington claimed that the deputy sheriff had been arrested on charges of marijuana possession. He even published an arrest ticket for the deputy sheriff’s arrest for marijuana. These ads caused Maxwell much embarrassment over his management of the Sheriff’s Office.

Maxwell arrested Whittington on the report of his ex-girlfriend who claimed that Whittington had harassed her by making multiple phone calls to her and taking two rings off her hand, refusing to return them. The judge, Boothe, set Whittington’s bail at $175,000, a high amount considering Whittington’s prior record of a single misdemeanor. Since Whittington could not post bond, he spent fifty days in jail.

Whittington claims that the judge, the district attorney, the Sheriff’s Office, and Maxwell in particular violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from malicious prosecution and his First Amendment right to complain about misconduct in office. He argues that Maxwell and his office manufactured the charges against him in order to carry out a political vendetta against him for his comments in his campaign ads.

The district court denied both Maxwell’s summary judgment motion as well as his claim of qualified immunity. Maxwell appeals both these decisions. However, the appellate court refused to consider the summary judgment appeal, claiming that they did not have jurisdiction to review the district court’s decision in the matter. Instead, the court focused on Maxwell’s qualified immunity defense. Qualified immunity exists to protect public officials from being sued despite reasonable behavior under the circumstances. Maxwell argues that this defense protects his behavior from Whittington’s claims.

In order to determine whether Maxwell is entitled to qualified immunity, the court looks to both whether or not he violated Whittington’s constitutional rights and whether the defendant’s actions that resulted in the violation were objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law at the time of the conduct in question. If an officer of reasonable competence would disagree as to whether the plaintiff’s rights were violated, then the Maxwell’s qualified immunity stands.

Were Whittington’s constitutional rights violated? The appellate court says yes. Whittington’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated when he was falsely arrested and detained for over fifty days in jail on fabricated charges. Prolonged incarceration without probable cause constitutes a cognizable deprivation of liberty under the Fourth Amendment.

Were Whittington’s actions objectively unreasonable under the circumstances? Again, the appellate court thinks so. To decide whether Maxwell’s actions were reasonable, the court considers both the viewpoint of a reasonable official in light of the information then available to the defendant and the law that was clearly established at the time of the defendant’s actions. In this case, the court found that no reasonable police officer could think that it was objectively reasonable to detain an individual in jail for over fifty days, under the officer’s fabricated charges, so that the officer could fulfill a personal vendetta against him. Therefore, Maxwell’s qualified immunity is not an applicable defense to Whittington’s claims. His actions clearly violated Whittington’s rights and cannot be considered reasonable when considered under an objective standard. Therefore, he is not immune to the charges.

If you are a police officer being sued then qualified immunity could very well apply to you. Please contact the Berniard Law firm for assistance.