Ochser v. Funk – 12/21/2011

December 28, 2011

Arizona Supreme Court Holds That Law Enforcement Officers Who Arrest a Suspect Pursuant to a Warrant And Are Confronted With Readily Available Information That Objectively Casts Doubt on the Warrant’s Validity May Not Proceed With the Arrest Without Further Reasonable Inquiry Into the Validity of the Warrant.

On “Operation Mother’s Day” in 2004, two Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputies drove to Flagstaff to arrest a man at work pursuant to a warrant issued by a Maricopa County family court in January 2003. 

The man informed the deputies that the warrant had been quashed and offered to provide them proof:  A certified copy of the order quashing the warrant, which the man kept at his place of work.  The deputies refused to allow the man to retrieve the order; instead, they shackled, handcuffed and drove the man to Phoenix, where he was jailed overnight.  He was released the next day when it was determined that the warrant had indeed been quashed.

The man filed an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.  The trial court granted the deputies’ motion for summary judgment, ruling that an arresting officer is entitled to qualified immunity when making an arrest based on a facially valid warrant. 

A divided Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that the law was not clearly established that an arresting officer acting on a facially valid warrant has an obligation to investigate documentary evidence.  The man appealed and the Arizona Supreme Court accepted review, vacating the Court of Appeals opinion but affirming the trial court’s summary judgment.

The doctrine of “qualified immunity” shields state and federal officials from prosecution unless a plaintiff pleads facts showing (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was “clearly established” at the time of the challenged conduct. 

Here, the deputies acted unreasonably and in violation of the Fourth Amendment by refusing to review readily available documentary evidence and conduct an appropriate inquiry into the validity of the warrant.  There was no urgent need for the arrest, and retrieving the order quashing the warrant would not have jeopardized the deputies’ safety or required substantial time or difficulty.

Because, however, the deputies’ duty of further inquiry was not “clearly established” at the time of the arrest, the deputies were entitled to qualified immunity.  The Court therefore affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the deputies. 

Justice Pelander authored the opinion for the unanimous Court.