Ochser v. Funk (9/28/2010)

October 20, 2010

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds That Officers Are Entitled to Qualified Immunity When They Arrest Someone Based on a Facially Valid Warrant Even Though Documentary Evidence Showing the Warrant’s Invalidity Is Close at Hand.

In May 2004, as part of “Operation Mother’s Day 2004,” officers from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (“MCSO”) went to Clifford Ochser’s workplace to arrest him because his name was on a list of parents with outstanding child support warrants.  Unbeknownst to the officers, Ochser’s warrant had been quashed in March 2003.  The warrant, however, remained on active status with the MCSO, and its validity was confirmed with the Sheriff’s Operation Information Center before the officers executed it.  When the officers arrived to arrest Ochser, he protested, explained that the warrant had been quashed, and told the officers that they could confirm this by retrieving a certified copy of the minute entry quashing the warrant which was in his office desk.  Nevertheless, the officers arrested Ochser.  The next day, Ochser was released after it was determined that the warrant had been quashed. 

Ochser filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against the officers alleging violations of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.  The superior court granted the officers’ motion for summary judgment, concluding that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because they arrested Ochser based on a facially valid warrant and were not required to investigate Ochser’s claims that the warrant had been quashed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting Ochser’s arguments that his arrest was unreasonable in light of the relevant circumstances and that the law was clearly established on the date of his arrest that an officer could not rely on an apparently valid warrant when it would be unreasonable to do so under the circumstances.

The Court began its analysis by noting the applicable standard for qualified immunity:  government officials are immune from civil liability if a reasonable government official could have believed that his actions were lawful in light of clearly established law and the information he possessed at the time of his actions.  The Court did not decisively conclude that Ochser’s constitutional rights were actually violated, but focused instead on whether it was clearly established on the date of his arrest that the officers’ actions amounted to a violation.  The Court concluded that it was not clearly established that in light of a facially valid warrant, the officers has an obligation to investigate the available documentary evidence.  In addition, the Court said, officers of reasonable competence could disagree as to whether they had an obligation to investigate further after Ochser claimed the warrant was invalid.  Distinguishing the cases relied upon by Ochser and the dissen, the majority noted that no Supreme Court or Ninth Circuit case had held that it is unlawful to arrest a person pursuant to a facially valid warrant without first examining documentary evidence offered by the arrestee.

Judge Johnsen dissented, first agreeing with the majority’s apparent conclusion that Ochser’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated.  She went on to discuss federal cases that have held that officers are not entitled to qualified immunity when their reliance on a facially valid warrant is unreasonable under the relevant circumstances.  In particular, Judge Johnsen pointed to Berg v. County of Allegheny, 219 F.3d 261 (3d Cir. 2000), in which the Third Circuit reversed summary judgment in favor of officers who had arrested the plaintiff on a facially valid warrant even though he offered to produce documents proving the warrant was invalid.  Judge Johnsen found the majority’s attempts to distinguish Berg and other cases relied upon by Ochser unconvincing.  She would have held that reasonable law enforcement officers could not disagree that the officers, in this case, should have retrieved and inspected the documents Ochser offered to prove the invalidity of the arrest warrant and that that rule was clearly established at the time of Ochser’s arrest.

Judge Orozco authored the majority opinion; Judge Thompson concurred.