Officer's Qualified Immunity Doesn't Stop at the County Line

By William Peacock, Esq. on January 31, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Amber Maughon allegedly got into a physical altercation with her ex-husband’s new girlfriend at her son’s baseball game. The girlfriend reported the incident to Officer Kevin Fuller of the Covington Police Department in Newton County. The victim’s statements corroborated by the scratches observed on her person as well as two witnesses’ accounts.

Fuller intended to obtain a warrant and arrest Maughon the following day. However, Georgia State Trooper Cal Burton (a friend of the victim), who was stationed in neighboring Walton County, contacted Maughon later that evening to relay that he had information on the case. After consulting with dispatchers and authorities in both counties, and discussing the matter with his supervisor, Maughon met an officer from Walton County at Maughon’s house to proceed with the arrest.

At this point, the court reminds us that even though facts are taken in a light most favorable to the plaintiff at the summary judgment stage, implausible facts or those plainly controverted by the record will not be accepted. Maughon was apparently telling tall-tales which were disproven by the recorded footage of the incident by the camera-equipped police cruiser.

Maughon, who was clothed in only a t-shirt and underwear, told Fuller that her identification was in her car. He grew suspicious that she was trying to flee, so he attempted to place her under arrest, which she resisted until the Walton officer told her to comply. At some point, she also allegedly made terroristic threats. Battery and threat charges are currently pending elsewhere.

Maughon sued for false arrest and over a related photo incident. Summary judgment was granted on both counts due to qualified immunity, which the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

In order for qualified immunity to apply, an officer must be acting within his discretionary authority. This is shown when the general nature of his actions were (1) "undertaken pursuant to the performance of [his] duties and (2) within the scope of [his] authority."

If this test is satisfied, the plaintiff has to show that immunity is inappropriate by first showing that the facts, taken in a light most favorable to the plaintiff establish a constitutional violation by the officers and second, by showing that the actions committed were clearly established as unconstitutional at the time they were undertaken.

An arrest made with probable cause is an absolute bar to an action for false arrest. Here, Fuller had probable cause based on the evidence that corroborated the victim's claims. However, Fuller apparently crossed the county line, meaning he may not have been acting in the scope of his authority. However, he was acting in concert with the local authorities and his supervisor's permission. As the Eleventh so eloquently put it, "he was acting - both literally and figuratively - within the outer perimeter of his discretionary duties."

Now that the burden shifts to Maughon to show unconstitutionality, she obviously fails because, as we already stated, the arrest was made with probable cause. Here is the easiest math a lawyer will ever do: PC = constitutionality. Case dismissed.

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