Ochser v. Funk (CA1 9/28/10)


In this wrongful-arrest case the majority and the dissent agree that the law was clear to the arresting officers and then argue back and forth, for fourteen pages each, about what the law was.

Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Ochser on a child-support warrant that turned out, unbeknownst to the Sheriff, to have been quashed. Ochser had a copy of the minute entry quashing it but the deputies didn’t look at it; instead they basically called their office and were told that the warrant was valid. So he sued them under §1983, alleging violations of the fourth and fourteenth amendments. The trial court granted summary judgment for the deputies; the Court of Appeals affirms.

Federal authority gives officers a qualified privilege to arrest on a facially-valid warrant. Ochser argued that they had an obligation to review readily-available objective information; his “expert” witness agreed with him. Federal authority says that if the warrant is facially valid then the officers have no duty to inquire further. That could have been enough to resolve the case but the court, which seems to have been following the briefs, uses a two-step qualified-immunity analysis from a U.S. Supreme Court case that a later Supreme Court case says isn’t necessary (as this court admits in a footnote).

The first question in the analysis is whether a constitutional right has been violated. It takes the majority a page, and two footnotes, to decide that jailing someone on an invalid warrant violates his rights. Or it apparently does, as the analysis never really reaches a conclusion. The real point of it seems simply to be that the first part of the two-step test shouldn’t be confused with the second.

Which is whether the right was “clearly established” such that “a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.” The court concludes that it was objectively reasonable for the deputies to rely on the processes of the Sheriff’s office in checking the warrant. It distinguishes on their facts various cases that found no qualified immunity.

The dissent disagrees that those cases should be distinguished and therefore concludes that the law clearly established that the officers should have looked at – and, presumably, assumed to be valid – Ochser’s minute entry. The majority responds that those cases are, too, distinguishable and that the dissent relies on cases from the First and Third Circuits, not the Ninth or the Supreme Court.

The dissent beats the majority on footnotes, if nothing else, 8-5.

(link to opinion)