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Lincoln v. Turner

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

October 31, 2017

ERIN LINCOLN, Individually and as Representative of the Estate of John Lincoln, Plaintiff - Appellant
PATRICK TURNER, Defendant-Appellee

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before HIGGINBOTHAM, SMITH, and HAYNES, Circuit Judges.


         The police shot and killed John Lincoln as he stood beside then eighteen-year-old daughter Erin. She here alleges that after she collapsed and cried out, Officer Patrick Turner picked her up, threw her over his shoulder, and carried her to a police car, where she sat handcuffed against her will. Erin brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Turner, alleging unreasonable seizure and excessive force. The district court sustained Turner's defense of immunity and granted his motion to dismiss. We AFFIRM.


         As this case comes to us from a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, we accept Erin's well-pleaded facts as true.[1] Erin alleges that on the night of December 26, 2013, her father, John Lincoln-diagnosed with bipolar disorder and out of his medication-took a gun from his father's house and went to his mother Kathleen's home. When John arrived, Kathleen was not home, but Erin was.

         John's father believed that John was a threat to Kathleen and called John's sister Kelly, an Arlington Police Department officer. Kelly then called the Colleyville Police Department and told them that John might pose a threat to Kathleen. A large SWAT team arrived, including officers from multiple police departments. A police dispatcher contacted Erin, who explained that her father would not hurt her. As the stand-off continued, Erin attempted to calm her father. At one point the phone rang, and Erin, knowing it was the police, urged her father not to answer it "because it would upset him." John answered the phone and became upset.

         At some point, John began opening the front door and shouting at the police while holding his father's gun. Every time John opened the door, Erin was standing next to him. The final time John opened the door, the police shot and killed him.

         When Erin fell to the ground beside John and cried out, Turner handcuffed her and threw her over his shoulder. Erin alleges that "Turner carried her into the backyard, hung her roughly over the back gate and then threw her onto her feet. Erin was then put [] in the back of a police car in handcuffs;" she "did not fight, struggle, or resist;" and she was eventually taken to the police station by another officer, where she was interrogated for five hours.

         Erin sued several police officers, including Turner.[2] She filed her original complaint in October 2015 and she amended several months later. The district court granted Turner's motion to dismiss. It found that Erin insufficiently pled her claim as required by Rule 8(a)(2), and alternatively that Erin did not overcome qualified immunity.

         Erin appeals.[3]


         "We review a district court's grant of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim de novo, 'accepting all well-pleaded facts as true and viewing those facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.'"[4] "The grant of a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity similarly is reviewed de novo."[5]


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) states: "A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain . . . a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief[.]"[6] "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged."[7] "While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do."[8]

         Turner moved under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. Citing Twombly[9] and Iqbal, [10] the district court concluded that "plaintiffs have alleged little more than bare legal conclusions" and that "[t]he facts pleaded do no more than permit the court to infer the possibility of misconduct and that is not enough to allow plaintiffs to go forward with their claims."[11]

         Erin argues that she sufficiently alleged claims for unconstitutional seizure and excessive force.[12] She contends that the district court erred when it stated there was no allegation of Erin having contact with Turner, since she "allege[d] that Turner cuffed her, physically threw her over his shoulder, threw her over a fence and then physically placed her, against her will and still handcuffed, into the back of a patrol car." Erin also maintains that she sufficiently alleged the elements of an excessive force claim; specifically, she maintains that she alleged (1) "a severe emotional injury, " (2) "which resulted from a use of force that was clearly excessive, " and (3) "[that] excessiveness . . . was clearly unreasonable."

         Turner counters that "Erin has not pleaded sufficient facts to show that [he] unreasonably seized her as a material witness and suspect after John was shot, " and that with respect to excessive force, Erin pled "only de minimis injuries consistent with a constitutional handcuffing" and did not show that Turner directly caused the injuries or "plead facts sufficient to show that the force used was excessive in light of the hostage/criminal situation."

         We hold that Erin sufficiently pled unconstitutional seizure and excessive force, and address each in turn.


         The Fourth Amendment states in relevant part: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated[.]"[13] The extent of this constitutional protection varies with the type of seizure at issue. "The Fourth Amendment applies to all seizures of the person, including seizures that involve only a brief detention short of traditional arrest."[14] "This court has recognized that there are different 'tiers of citizen-police contact for purposes of [F]ourth [A]mendment analysis.'"[15] That is:

The first tier involves no coercion or detention and does not implicate the fourth amendment. The second tier, an investigatory stop, is a brief seizure that must be supported by reasonable suspicion . . . Finally, the third tier is a full scale arrest [which] must be supported by probable cause.[16]

Brown v. Texas[17] articulated a test that has been used to analyze detentions not easily categorized as investigatory stops or arrests, such as "stop and identify" detentions, [18] check-point stops, [19] and some witness detentions.[20] Detentions that begin as one type can transform into another.[21]

         As we will explain, the claimed detention here could be classified as a de facto arrest requiring probable cause, an investigatory stop that must be supported by reasonable suspicion, or a witness detention subject to the Brown balancing test.[22] Rather than press these categories, whose boundaries are blurred, we treat each type of detention in turn, and conclude that Erin has sufficiently stated a claim under all three standards.


         Based on the allegations in her amended complaint, Erin's detention may rise to the level of a de facto arrest that must be supported by probable cause. "An arrest occurs when, 'in view of the all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.'"[23] This is a fact-specific inquiry.[24] Here, Erin alleges that Turner handcuffed her and placed her in the back of a police car against her will for approximately two hours.[25] Taking these facts as true, a reasonable person could "believe that her freedom was restrained to a degree typically associated with arrest."[26] Such a detention must be supported by probable cause. "Probable cause exists 'when the totality of the facts and circumstances within a police officer's knowledge at the moment of arrest are sufficient for a reasonable person to conclude that the suspect had committed or was committing an offense.'"[27] Importantly, "[t]he facts must be known to the officer at the time of the arrest; post-hoc justifications based on facts later learned cannot support an earlier arrest."[28]

         Turner argues that "[s]everal crimes and potential crimes had taken place, and police were about to investigate."[29] Yet Turner only connects Erin to one potential crime: interfering with police officer's attempts to communicate with John before the shooting. To support this claim, Turner points to Erin's admission in the amended complaint that she urged her father not to answer the phone when the police called. However, while Erin included this information in the amended complaint, there is no indication that the police knew about this at the time Turner seized Erin.[30] Nothing else in Erin's amended complaint could lead to the conclusion that Erin had committed or was going to commit an offense. In short, "the facts as alleged in the amended complaint do not permit a conclusion that [Turner] had probable cause to arrest [Erin] [for interference] at the time of the arrest[]."[31] Said differently, the "factual content" pled "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for" an unconstitutional arrest.[32]


         Even if Erin's seizure were treated as a less intrusive investigatory detention, she states a plausible claim. "[U]nder the 'very narrow exception' announced in Terry v. Ohio, police officers may briefly detain a person for investigative purposes if they can point to 'specific and articulable facts' that give rise to reasonable suspicion that a particular person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime."[33]

         Turner argues that he had reasonable suspicion to detain Erin, emphasizing that legal conduct can support reasonable suspicion; that "there is no rigid time limit on the duration of an investigatory detention"; and that, based on the events leading up to the police shooting and that an investigation was about to commence, "officers could have reasonably suspected that Erin may have been involved in criminal activity." Turner specifically argues that reasonable suspicion existed that Erin was "part of a larger criminal enterprise" including interference with police officers. We disagree.

         Turner does not clarify what "larger criminal enterprise" he repeatedly refers to. In any event, suspicion of unidentified criminal activity is not the kind of "particularized and objective basis for suspecting legal wrongdoing"[34]that is necessary to support detention. Nor does the case law support a finding of reasonable suspicion on these allegations. The cases that Turner relies on treat detentions based on specific, articulable clues that a particular type of crime might be afoot. For example, in United States v. Sokolow, [35] although the Supreme Court suggested that a series of innocent actions could amount to reasonable suspicion, the innocent actions in that case included paying for airline tickets with $20 bills, traveling under a different name, traveling to Miami from Hawaii for only 48 hours, appearing nervous, and not checking luggage.[36] The Court held that there was "a reasonable basis to suspect that respondent was transporting illegal drugs on these facts."[37] There is not a similar series of innocent conduct that combines to allow for reasonable suspicion of a crime here.

United States v. Montoya de Hernandez[38] is similarly inapt. In that case, customs inspectors noted that a suspect had made several recent trips between Bogota and the United States, spoke no English, had no relatives or friends in the country, and carried $5, 000 cash and no credit cards.[39] She told inspectors that she was on a business trip, but had no appointments and no hotel reservations.[40] The Supreme Court found that the customs inspectors had "reasonable suspicion" that this particular traveler was smuggling drugs in her alimentary canal given her "implausible story" and the inspectors' previous experience with such smugglers. [41] Turner argues that while not as "stark" as those in Montoya, the facts alleged in the amended complaint establish reasonable suspicion. Yet Turner fails to point to a single fact to support such suspicion beyond Erin's "admitted[] interfer[ence]" with officers' attempts to communicate with John.

         Accepting Erin's allegations as true, Turner lacked the "minimal level of objective justification"[42] to detain her. In short, Erin pled a plausible claim, even if her seizure is seen to be an investigatory detention.


         Finally, Erin has sufficiently pled unreasonable seizure even if we assume that she was detained as a witness. The Fourth Amendment arrives "whenever a police officer accosts an individual and restrains his freedom to walk away."[43] In recent years, the Court has held that the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness requirement constrains detention of potential witnesses to a crime-even when the intrusion goes no further than a brief checkpoint stop.[44] In these suspicionless stops, courts often apply Brown v. Texas, requiring weighing (1) "the gravity of the public concerns served by the seizure, " (2) "the degree to which the seizure advances the public interest, " and (3) "the severity of the interference with individual liberty."[45]

         Erin argues that her detention was not a permissible witness detention, distinguishing the situation at hand from the type of brief investigatory checkpoint stop authorized by the Supreme Court in Illinois v. Lidster. Turner counters that Erin has not sufficiently pled facts "to show that [he] unreasonably seized her as a material witness, " though elsewhere he distinguishes Erin from a mere "member of the public" and suggests that she was "potentially a suspect in a larger criminal enterprise."

         The allegations make out a sufficient claim for an unreasonable detention even she was detained as a witness. The Supreme Court's application of Brown in Lidster is instructive, finding it reasonable to briefly detain drivers at a roadside checkpoint to question motorists about a hit-and-run in the area.[46] The Court found that the public concern was grave, since the police were investigating a "specific and known crime" that had "resulted in a human death";[47] that it was tailored to obtain information from drivers who might have seen the accident;[48] and that "[m]ost importantly, the stops interfered only minimally with liberty of the sort the Fourth Amendment seeks to protect."[49] In weighing this final factor, the Court noted that the stops required only "a very few minutes" in line and "only a few seconds" of police contact, and that they "provided little reason for anxiety and alarm."[50]

         As in Lidster, this case brings to us a matter of significant public concern. And the second factor may weigh even more in favor of the police here-Erin was present at the crime scene, and in fact was the only person inside the house with her father. Through the eyes of a reasonable police officer, she was likely to possess helpful information, and it was reasonable to seek it, at least to confirm her identity and contact information. Accepting this, the facts alleged here went beyond the bounds of a reasonable detention.[51] This was not the type of "minimally intrusive" stop authorized by Lidster. Instead, a distressed young woman was handcuffed and left in the back of a police car for almost two hours. The stop provoked significant "anxiety and alarm, " and lasted much longer than necessary to obtain information.

         Confronting a similar question, two circuits agree that detaining police cannot detain a person for a significant period of time solely because she witnessed a police shooting.[52] In Walker, the Tenth Circuit concluded that "a ninety minute detention for this purpose [of obtaining names, addresses, and voluntary statements from witnesses] was unreasonable."[53] In Maxwell, the Ninth Circuit similarly found that law enforcement officers could not "detain, separate, and interrogate the [witnesses] for hours" solely as witnesses.[54] In so holding, both courts noted that "[e]ven in the Terry stop context-which involves a suspicion of criminal activity that is absent here-the Supreme Court has never endorsed a detention longer than 90 minutes."[55]

         As our sister circuits noted, "[w]hat little authority exists on [the] question [of witness detention], suggests that police have less authority to detain those who have witnessed a crime for investigatory purposes than to detain criminal suspects."[56] We agree, and find that Erin has sufficiently pled an unreasonable seizure even under the Brown v. Texas balancing test. Erin has alleged a detention that would have been unreasonable if she were a suspect.


         We turn to whether Erin sufficiently pled excessive force. The district court thought that "[t]here [was] no allegation that Erin or her family had any contact with movants, physical or verbal." This was mistaken. Erin alleged the following physical contact between herself and Turner:

Erin was handcuffed and thrown over the shoulder of Defendant Patrick Turner. Erin, terrified, did not fight, struggle or resist. Turner carried her into the backyard, hung her roughly over the back gate and then threw her onto her feet. Erin was then put her in the back of a police car in handcuffs.[57]

         Given these factual allegations, we cannot agree with the district court that Erin "alleged little more than bare legal conclusions."

         "To succeed on an excessive force claim, a plaintiff bears the burden of showing (1) an injury (2) which resulted directly and only from the use of force that was excessive to the need and (3) the force used was objectively unreasonable."[58] At this pleading stage, Erin has pled facts that would "allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged."[59]

         We have stated that "[a]lthough a showing of 'significant injury' is no longer required in the context of an excessive force claim, '[this Court] require[s] a plaintiff asserting an excessive force claim to have suffered at least some form of injury.' The injury must be more than a de minimis injury and must be evaluated in the context in which the force was deployed."[60] Although Erin alleges receiving bruises and scratches, she points to her psychological injuries, like sleeplessness, anxiety, and depression, as the sufficient injuries to support her excessive force claim.[61] Erin is correct that psychological injuries can satisfy the injury requirement. This Court has explained:

While certain injuries are so slight that they will never satisfy the injury element, see, e.g., Glenn, 242 F.3d at 314 (holding that "handcuffing too tightly, without more, does not amount to excessive force"), psychological injuries may sustain a Fourth Amendment claim. See Dunn v. Denk, 79 F.3d 401, 402 (5th Cir. 1996) (en banc). The plaintiff's physical injuries in Dunn were only bruises, but she suffered substantial psychological injuries. We held that she alleged an injury sufficient to demonstrate the violation of a clearly established constitutional right.[62]

         Turner does not fully engage Erin's assertion that her psychological injuries are sufficient here. Rather, he argues that handcuffing injuries are often insufficient and that "Erin did not allege these injuries 'resulted directly and only' from Officer Turner's actions, but that she was injured by 'the force used on her' and 'further traumatized' by Officer Turner's actions."

         The argument that Erin failed to sufficiently connect her injuries to Turner's actions is not without any footing, as Turner was not the only officer involved. But Erin's amended complaint alleges that "[w]hen Defendant Turner handcuffed [Erin] and threw her over his shoulder, she was shocked and terrified. She sustained bruises and scratches from the force used on her and was further traumatized by the actions of the officer." At the pleading stage, these factual allegations are sufficient to connect Erin's alleged injuries to Turner's use of force-and therefore to sufficiently plead causation. To conclude otherwise would mean that when a plaintiff suffers injuries at the hands of multiple officers for multiple reasons, she will be precluded from ...

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