Court To Cop: You Took 80 Days Away From A Person's Life With A Baseless Warrant, So We're Taking Your Immunity

In 2009, April Yvette Smith was arrested on drug dealing charges and spent 80 days in jail. The charges were ultimately dropped by the district attorney, but by the time it happened, Smith had already lost her job. The same can’t be said for the officer who obtained her arrest warrant. His job was always secure. The only thing he’s lost — seven years after the fact — is his immunity from Smith’s civil rights lawsuit.

The chain of events leading to Smith’s wrongful arrest are as horrible as they are stupid. Somewhere between Barney Fife and the banal evil of law enforcement ineptitude lies Officer Jason Munday. It starts with a “wired” confidential informant and ends in an indifferent “investigation” that sounds as though Munday just got bored sitting around the office.

Here’s how it began, as detailed in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion [PDF]:

On March 10, 2009, officers Munday and McGinley conducted an undercover investigation using a confidential informant, Rufus Lynch Sr. The officers searched Lynch, wired him with audio and video recorders, and gave him sixty dollars. Lynch then went to 728 East Pine Street, where he purchased crack cocaine from two individuals. After the transaction, Lynch returned to the officers. He told the officers that he purchased drugs from April Smith, a black female. The detective’s notes identify April Smith as such: “B/F April Smith,” and “April B/F skinny $20 1 rock in plastic, Smith 40s.”

So far, so good… except for the many small details that collaborated to ensure the recording was useless.

Because the audio recorder had no batteries, it failed to record the transaction. And because the camera wired to Lynch pointed in the wrong direction, the video recording did not capture the drug sale. The video instead shows an unidentified black woman sitting on a front porch, and two other individuals standing on the porch.

Sending out someone to collect recordings and ending up with something approaching hearsay isn’t the best way to begin an investigation. But that didn’t stop Munday from moving slowly and fitfully towards an arrest he had no probable cause to make.

At some point during the next nine months, Munday scanned police databases for residents of Lincoln County named April Smith with criminal records. He then stumbled upon April Yvette Smith, a black woman who lived in Lincoln County and had been convicted of selling crack cocaine in 1993, 1997, and 2005. His search also revealed at least two other April Smiths with criminal records. He had no indication that the woman who sold crack cocaine to Lynch in March 2009 had a criminal record, or was even a Lincoln County resident. And the record reflects no further attempt by Munday to investigate Smith or connect her to the crime.

Having wrapped up his ultra-cursory investigation, Munday applied for an arrest warrant, snagging one of the April Smiths he had come across during his desktop browsing — nine months later and eleven miles away from the site of the drug sale that wasn’t properly recorded.

April Smith spent the next 80 days in jail, facing potential prosecution. Munday presumably went back to half-assing his way through his law enforcement career.

The lower court granted Munday immunity, stating that probable cause existed to arrest pretty much any April Smith who fit at least part of the description. The Appeals Court disagrees.

[E]ven ignoring Smith’s weight, a criminal history, common race, common gender, and unfortunately common name is not enough to establish probable cause.

[…]

When applying for an arrest warrant, Munday simply did not have enough information for any reasonable or prudent person to believe there was probable cause. He lacked any information connecting Smith’s conduct to the contours of the offense, and certainly lacked enough evidence to create any inference more than mere suspicion.

As the court points out, Munday did nothing that even approached the definition of “investigation.” All he did was browse a criminal record database and decide someone named April Smith was going to get a rap and a ride. For all the policework that went into this, Munday may as well have used a dartboard to generate his “probable cause.”

[T]o find the offender, Munday merely ran a broad search in the department’s database of individuals with criminal histories, looking for a woman of the same name. And when he found multiple individuals, at least two of whom were black women named April Smith weighing between 130 and 140 pounds, he chose one for no immediately apparent reason.

[…]

There is no evidence that Munday attempted to identify Smith as the black woman in the video footage. There is no evidence that the officers showed Lynch a photo of Smith to establish the identification. There is no evidence that the officers investigated Smith herself, or found any indication that Smith frequented the site of the drug sale that day, that month, or at all. Indeed, there is no explanation whatsoever for the nine-month delay between Lynch saying a black woman named April Smith sold crack cocaine to him and the issuance of an arrest warrant for April Yvette Smith.

Citing a previous case handled by this circuit, the Appeals Court calls Officer Munday out for his abject failure to perform any investigative work whatsoever before moving forward with an arrest.

“Horner was ‘not required to exhaust every potentially exculpatory lead or resolve every doubt’” to show probable cause. Id. at 190 (quoting Miller v. Prince George’s County, 475 F.3d 621, 630 (4th Cir. 2007)). But he still had to conduct some level of investigation. And he did. Munday conducted none.

And so, the court concludes Munday can’t have the immunity granted to him by the lower court. The warrant he applied for was so lacking in probable cause, the court cannot possibly extend him this legal nicety.

[E]ven a glance shows that Munday was unreasonable if he believed he had probable cause. Smith did have a criminal history for possessing and selling cocaine. But as discussed above, Munday had no evidence about her conduct whatsoever, let alone any evidence connecting her to the crime in question. It would be unreasonable for any officer to view Munday’s dearth of evidence as sufficient to establish probable cause. As a result, qualified immunity does not apply.

Because Munday failed to do his job, April Smith (allegedly) lost hers. Smith has already faced the consequences of Officer Munday’s actions. Now, it’s Munday’s turn.

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Author: Tim Cushing

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