City of Scottsdale v. Mikitish – 5/31/2022

June 6, 2022

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One holds that absolute immunity protects statements made in a police report by a police officer who is the victim of the reported crime.

Scottsdale police officers responded to reports of a disturbance between a man and his neighbor.  In their report, the officers stated that the man pointed a gun in the direction of the officers.  The man was charged with aggravated assault against the officers and was placed on probation after pleading guilty to the lesser charge of disorderly conduct.  The man sued the officers for making false and defamatory statements against him, relying on body camera footage showing that the man’s gun was pointed downwards and not directly at the officers.

The City moved for summary judgment on the defamation claim, arguing that the officers’ statements were protected by absolute immunity because they were crime victims or qualified immunity because they are police officers.  The superior court denied the motion on both grounds, holding that (1) absolute immunity did not apply because the statements in the report constituted documentation of the officers’ work in their official capacity rather than complaints to the police; and (2) qualified immunity should be submitted to the jury, who would determine whether the statements were made with knowledge of their falsity or actual doubts as to their truthfulness.  The officers sought special action review of the denial.

The court of appeals accepted review and reversed.  The court explained that Arizona law gives absolute immunity for citizen crime victims’ statements to the police, and police officer-victims are entitled to the same constitutional protections as other victims.  Thus, although absolute immunity does not apply to all statements made by officers in police reports, it does protect the statements of police officers who are victims of the reported crime.

The court rejected the man’s argument that, under the Victim’s Bill of Rights, absolute immunity should have existed only for the duration of the criminal proceedings and should have expired when he was discharged from probation.  The court explained that absolute immunity does not derive solely from the Victim’s Bill of Rights, but also from the common-law privilege for statements made in judicial proceedings, whose stated purpose is to encourage free and unfettered reporting to law enforcement authorities to assist the detection and prosecution of criminal activity.  A privilege that protects victims’ statements only if those statements result in criminal charges and expires at the end of criminal proceedings would be inconsistent with that purpose.

Because it resolved the special action on absolute immunity grounds, the court did not address the issue of qualified immunity.  The court reversed the superior court’s denial of summary judgment and instructed that court to enter summary judgment for the City on the defamation claim.

Judge Morse authored the opinion, in which Judges Campbell and Howe joined.