Garcia v. Montgomery County Maryland

We are pleased to announce that our first blog submission of the new academic year is here!  The below is an engaging submission about police misconduct.

Special thanks for this submission goes to Nathanael Archuleta, one of our staff editors.  As always, CLR greatly appreciates the hard work of our editors and their submissions.

Garcia v. Montgomery County, Md.

FACTS

In 2011, photojournalist Mannie Garcia witnessed an excessive force arrest by two officers and began photographing the scene. Mr. Garcia did not interfere with police activity and even identified himself as a member of the press to one of the on scene officers.  After Mr. Garcia identified himself and his belongings, Officer Malouf arrested Mr. Garcia and placed him in a chokehold, forcibly dragging him along the ground to the police cruiser. Officer Malouf handcuffed Mr. Garcia, confiscated his camera, and kicked Mr. Garcia to the ground.  Officer Malouf also threatened Mr. Garcia’s wife with arrest if she approached.  After his arrest, Officer Malouf failed to inform Mr. Garcia of his Miranda rights or his charged offense.  Further, Officer Malouf confiscated physical evidence of his abuse and booked Mr. Garcia for disorderly conduct. When the police released Mr. Garcia from booking, he did not receive his video card back.  At his subsequent trial, a jury acquitted Mr. Garcia of the disorderly conduct charge.

After being acquitted, Mr. Garcia initiated a civil suit against the police department and city alleging that Officer Malouf fabricated the disorderly conduct charge and that the officers onsite failed to follow police policy on media relations.  Mr. Garcia’s complaint sought relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his First and Fourth Amendment Rights.

ANALYSIS (other state law claims in the opinion have been omitted from this analysis)

Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, liability exists for “every person” who under the color of law, deprives an individual of any rights privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution.  For an individual to be liable under § 1983, he/she must be affirmatively shown to have been an official acting under the color of law and acted personally in the deprivation of the plaintiff’s rights.  Here, Officer Malouf, Officer Baxter, and Lieutenant Sheller were acting under the color of law during all relevant times.  Assuming this threshold issue, the courts analysis shifted to the individual liability of each officer.

The court denied the defendants’ preliminary motion to dismiss as to the merits of Mr. Garcia’s First Amendment claims against Officer Malouf and Officer Baxter and Mr. Garcia’s Fourth Amendment claim against Officer Malouf. The court reasoned that citizens have a right to film government officials including law enforcement in the discharge of their duties.  Accordingly, the court found that gathering information about government officials in a form that is readily disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest of protecting free discussion of governmental affairs.  The court agreed with Mr. Garcia’s allegations with regard to the peaceful documentation of   the officers’ actions in a public place and found that Mr. Garcia conducted himself in a manner and at a distance that did not interfere with the officer’s arrest.  As he was photographing, Officer Baxter flashed Mr. Garcia with a spotlight and Mr. Garcia moved farther away.  Mr. Garcia proceeded to identify himself as a member of the media, after which Officer Malouf arrested him and seized his property without good cause.  Officer Malouf arrest and seizure of Mr. Garcia was therefore without probable cause under the Fourth Amendment because Mr. Garcia’s actions constituted a constitutionally protected speech.

The court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss as to Mr. Garcia’s Fourth Amendment claim against Officer Baxter because Mr. Garcia failed to allege sufficient facts that officer Baxter was involved in his arrest or seizure.  The court made clear that presence alone is not sufficient to support a finding that Officer Baxter violated Mr. Garcia’s Fourth Amendment rights when Officer Malouf arrested and seized Mr. Garcia.

The court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss for all claims against Lieutenant Sheeler because Lieutenant Sheeler was not present during the alleged violations.  Since Mr. Garcia did not allege any claim involving patterns of abuse by the internal affairs department, the court did not consider any other wrongdoing by Lieutenant Sheeler.

With respect to liability under an “official capacity” theory, the court first focused on Mr. Garcia’s complaint against Montgomery County.  Per § 1983, liability attaches only where a municipality itself causes the constitutional violation at issue.  Under this theory, a valid claim arises only where the constitutionally offensive acts of city employees are taken in furtherance of some municipal policy or custom.

However, liability is not inferred merely by inaction of the municipality in the face of isolated constitutional deprivations by municipal employees.

Here, the court found that Mr. Garcia complaint had merit because Mr. Garcia properly asserted that Montgomery County was aware of unconstitutional actions by its officers and chose to ignore such behavior.  The court noted that to survive a motion to dismiss, plaintiffs must plead in their complaint facts that rise above a speculative level if assumed true.  Accordingly, the court rejected the defendant’s motion to dismiss involving Montgomery County.

Additionally, the court addressed which officials, if any, could represent Montgomery County in an official capacity.  An official capacity suit is treated as a suit a government entity; however, officers are only liable in their official capacity when the injury was inflicted by a government lawmaker or by those who may fairly be said to represent official policy.

Here, the court denied the motion to dismiss as to Mr. Garcia’s claim against Police Chief Manger in his official capacity because of Mr. Garcia’s stated role of Police Chief Manger in his injury.  According to Mr. Garcia, Chief Manger was responsible in whole or in part for creating, implementing, promulgating, and enforcing the policies, practices, and/or customs within the police department that prevented Mr. Garcia from engaging in lawful journalist conduct.  The court dismissed all claims relating to Officer Malouf, Baxter, and Graves and Lieutenant Sheeler in their official capacity because Mr. Garcia failed to allege that any of these parties had any final policy making authority for Montgomery County.  Undoubtedly, it is a difficult and daunting task to prove the existence of an underlying policy that encouraged the officers’ inappropriate behavior.

Cases such as this case beg the questions whether such actions are appropriate and whether they restrictions to such actions against the police and government should be relaxed or intensified.

 

We want to hear your opinions on this and other issues recently discussed on the blog.