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Appeals Court Lets Officer Off Hook For ‘Unconstitutional Arrest’ Because He Couldn’t Have Known It Violated Rights

A federal appeals court ruled in favor of an officer in Colleyville, Texas, who used “excessive force” against an 18-year-old woman after police shot and killed her father. The court asserted the officer could not have known force was “clearly unreasonable” in this situation, given the “lack of guiding precedent,” and granted him immunity for his actions.

Even though Erin Lincoln “sufficiently alleged violations of her right to be free from unreasonable seizure and excessive force,” the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with a district court and agreed the officer could not be sued.

The decision indicates Lincoln alleged the police shot and killed John Lincoln, her father, while she was standing next to him. She fell to the ground and cried. Immediately, Officer Patrick Turner handcuffed and tossed her over his shoulder.

“Turner carried her into the backyard, hung her roughly over the back gate, and then threw her onto her feet. Erin was then put in the back of a police car in handcuffs,” she alleged. She was in the car for a couple hours before police took her to a station for a five-hour interrogation.

John Lincoln suffered from bipolar disorder and had run out of his medication. He grabbed a gun from his father’s house and went over to his mother’s home. His father feared John might pose a danger to his mother, Kathleen. So, his father called John’s sister, Kelly, an Arlington Police Department officer. She called the Colleyville Police Department.

“A large SWAT team arrived, including officers from multiple police departments. A police dispatcher contacted Erin, who explained that her father would not hurt her. As the stand-off continued, Erin attempted to calm her father. At one point the phone rang, and Erin, knowing it was the police, urged her father not to answer it ‘because it would upset him.’ John answered the phone and became upset,” according to the court.

Erin’s father opened the door multiple times while holding the gun. Erin stood by his side. Police eventually gave up on resolving the situation and shot him.

The appeals court concluded Erin’s detention may be a “de facto arrest.” Probable cause was required to take her into custody.

Turner apparently maintained he had “reasonable suspicion” to detain Erin, and there was no “rigid time limit on the duration of an investigatory detention.” He attempted to argue events leading up to the shooting that killed her father could have led officers to suspect Erin was involved in “criminal activity.” He even went so far as to suggest she might be part of a “larger criminal enterprise” but offered no specifics.

“Accepting Erin’s allegations as true, Turner lacked the ‘minimal level of objective justification’ to detain her,” the appeals court determined.

It was not a “minimally intrusive” stop that may be acceptable under the Fourth Amendment. “A distressed young woman was handcuffed and left in the back of a police car for almost two hours. The stop provoked significant ‘anxiety and alarm,’ and lasted much longer than necessary to obtain information.”

Turner went so far as to claim that Erin could not argue her injuries, psychological and physical, came from him because there were other officers on the scene with him. Yet, in her complaint, she indicated bruises and scratches came from the force that Turner used on her. It was how he treated her that created trauma.

It was an “unconstitutional arrest.” However, the appeals court believed it was possible the officer could have believed it was reasonable to detain, arrest, and handcuff Erin.

“We are not persuaded that ‘every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right,'” the appeals court declared.

Listing off prior relevant cases (Dunaway v. New York, Davis v. Mississippi), the appeals court insisted none of them “clearly established that a law enforcement officer could not detain a witness to a police shooting for these two hours while a SWAT team sorted out the scene, at the least when the witness was standing beside a person when the police shot him.”

“Thus, we find that Erin has not shown that the contours of the right were so clearly established that ‘a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.'”

The case is remarkable, given there are any number of situations that could occur in the course of police engaging in brutality against a suspect, witness, or bystander. All an officer has to do is allege something novel and suggest these are scenarios federal courts have not dealt with before. Then, the officer can feign ignorance and avoid any responsibility or consequences.

It creates a potentially insurmountable bar for anyone, who alleges they had their constitutional rights violated by a police officer.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."