Qualified immunity is proper in civil suit if arresting officer had reasonable suspicion of crime, even if evidence of underlying event might suggest self-defense.
This civil rights suit against an investigator for the Bethlehem Township Police Department stemmed from an incident in which the plaintiff was involved in a fight at a party, which resulted in the plaintiff stabbing three people and slashing a fourth with a knife. The case was transferred to Marshall Dennehey for handling after the District Court judge denied the motion to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds. The court held that the claims asserted by the plaintiff – for malicious prosecution and selective enforcement – could survive summary judgment because the evidence of the case, viewed in the light favorable to the plaintiff, could support the plaintiff's claim of self-defense and that, therefore, no probable cause to arrest existed. It was at this point that our firm was retained. We immediately moved for an interlocutory appeal as of right in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that because the District Court judge made an error of law regarding how the evidence should be viewed, interlocutory appeal was proper. On the merits of the appeal, we argued that the District Court judge erred because he looked at the evidence of the underlying criminal matter and, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Mr. Davis, found that there was sufficient evidence to suggest he acted in self-defense. The Court of Appeals held, consistent with our argument, that the judge should have examined the evidence of the investigation, not the underlying criminal matter, and determined whether there was probable cause to arrest based on the investigation. The court agreed that the evidence of the investigation – including interviews of witnesses who portrayed Davis as the aggressor, the undisputed evidence that Davis, alone, wielded a knife and stabbed or slashed five people, and the physical evidence from the scene – all established probable cause to arrest Davis, even if a jury in the criminal matter could believe that he was acting in self-defense. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded to the District Court to determine if there was any other basis not previously discussed by the District Court that might establish a genuine issue of fact on the probable cause analysis. The District Court found no such evidence was present, and final judgment was entered in favor of the defendant.
Case Law Alert - 3rd Qtr 2012