Lincoln v Barnes – 5th Circuit (5APR2018)

Lincoln v Barnes – 5th Circuit (5APR2018)

The plaintiff in this 42 U.S.C. 1983 civil suit against the police officers of Colleyville, Texas brought suit alleging the police violated her Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable government searches and seizures when they detained her on the scene for two hours and then transported her to the police station and questioned her for two hours prior to releasing her after the SWAT team shot and killed her father.

On December 26, 2013 the Colleyville Police Department responded to a call that a man armed with a gun was on his way to a specific location to kill his mother. The officers responded to the residence where John Lincoln and his daughter Erin Lincoln, the plaintiff in the suit, were inside the house. John Lincoln repeatedly would open the door and make comments such as “come and take it” and “make your move” to the officers assembled outside. After refusing instructions by the SWAT team to drop his weapon, John Lincoln was shot by the SWAT team. After he was shot, his daughter Erin began screaming and ran to him. SWAT officers had to physically remove her from her father’s side to secure the scene and provide him with medical attention. She was initially handcuffed (although they were removed later) and placed in the backseat of a police car for nearly 2 hours. She was then taken to the police station where she was questioned prior to being released. In total, she was detained for over four hours.

The Fifth Circuit concluded that this action constituted a seizure under the Fourth Amendment and at a minimum was an investigatory suspicionless detention triggering Fourth Amendment scrutiny. The court cited many cases involving the detention of witnesses to a crime, noting that any such detention must be “minimally invasive.” The court held that although it may have been reasonable to detain Erin as a witness for some amount of time to determine her role in the situation, they exceeded that authority when they detained her in the back of the police car for two hours. The court noted that it may have been reasonable for the officers to remove her from the scene given her proximity but stated “it does not necessarily follow that they had unbound authority to hold her for roughly 4 hours, notably without probable cause.”

Having determined that the officers violated the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights, the court next turned to the issue of whether the right was clearly established at the time of the action. The court noted that their inability to point to a string of cases establishing “settled law” that these facts amount to Fourth Amendment violation demonstrates that the violate right was not so clearly established that these officers can be liable. Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s grant of qualified immunity to these officers.

Bruce’s Footnote:

In many of these cases, the court skips to the second question in finding qualified immunity based on the lack of a clearly established principle without answering the first question as to whether or not a constitutional violation had occurred. In this case, the court answered both questions concluding that a Fourth Amendment violation had indeed occurred in the situation. Accordingly, although these officers received qualified immunity, it is now clearly established that this type of action is Fourth Amendment violation and so in the future, officers would not receive qualified immunity for similar actions.

For a PDF copy of the full opinion click here.