Sosa v. Marin County, Florida, et al—(C.J. William Pryor; 11th Cir.; 1/20/23). This lengthy opinion involved a claim of wrongful arrest against a Florida county, the county’s sheriff, a deputy sheriff, and unknown “John Doe” deputies. The Martin County Sheriff’s Department arrested David Sosa for crimes committed by a different man with the same name. Not only that, they’ve done it twice. The first time was in 2014 when an officer giving a traffic ticket was informed by his computer about a Texas warrant for “Davis Sosa” from 22 years earlier. Sosa pointed out, by the way, that he was too young to be the man who was subject of a warrant 22 years earlier, and the date of birth, height, and weight were different, too. The officer arrested him anyway, his fingerprints were taken, and then he was released three hours later when the police confirmed that they had arrested the wrong David Sosa. Four years later, in 2018, the same exact thing happened during another traffic stop, and Sosa informed the officer about the 2014 debacle. He was arrested anyway, and he was taken to jail. This time, he was kept for three days because two of the days were on a weekend. On the following Monday, they again confirmed that they had the wrong guy and let him go. This time, he sued. He raised claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging 14th amendment violations for arrest and detention without probable cause, that they took an unconstitutionally long time to check his identity, and that the sheriff and county did not have adequate policies to train or supervise the deputies properly. A panel of the Eleventh Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part, explaining that the arrest was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and that Sosa’s claims against the County and the Sheriff were not viable. The panel majority also concluded that Sosa stated a valid claim for violating his “substantive due-process right to be free from continued detention after it should have been known that [he] was entitled to release,” but there was a dissent that opined that a supreme court decision foreclosed relief. The court voted to rehear the case en banc, and it vacated the panel opinion purely in regard to the over-detention claim. The full court opined that the holding in Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137 (1979), that detention due to mistaken identity “gives rise to no claim under the United States Constitution” when it lasts only “three days” and is pursuant to a warrant conforming to the requirements of the Fourth Amendment, forecloses relief for Sosa’s over-detention claim. JOINING C.J. PRYOR’S OPINION WERE JUDGES NEWSOM, BRANCH, GRANT, LUCK, LAGOA, AND BRASHER.
JUDGE JORDAN FILED A SPECIAL CONCURRENCE IN WHICH JUSTICES WILSON AND JILL PRYOR JOINED. The concurrence reads a bit like a dissent. These three judges opined that Baker did not foreclose relief. Judge Jordan wrote that the Supreme Court’s 2021 qualified immunity decisions, however, broadened qualified immunity to now require that the facts of prior cases be “very, very close to the ones at hand to give officers reasonable notice of what is prohibited.” While the inquiry does not require a “case directly on point,” it requires that the factual similarity place the statutory or constitutional issue “beyond debate.” While there was a prior Eleventh Circuit case that appeared to provide a right to sue, Baker muddied the waters to the point that a fictional officer reading both cases would not know for certain that three days of detention was unlawful. He wrote that the concurrence was a “reluctant one,” because qualified immunity does not jibe with the law at the time of the adoption of section 1983 in the 1870s. He called upon the Supreme Court to do away with qualified immunity (setting the stage, of course, for Sosa to try to take this issue to the Supreme Court).
JUDGE NEWSOM, WHO WAS IN THE MAJORITY, WROTE A CONCURRENCE JOINED BY THE CHIEF JUDGE AND JUDGE LAGOA, ALL OF WHOM WERE IN THE MAJORITY. The three judges—including the chief judge who wrote the majority opinion—all seem to lament the outcome. The concurrence notes that Sosa “must have felt like he had been dropped into a Kafka novel.” Judge Newsom added that what happened to him was “awful.” He opined without deciding that locking him up for three days while he kept insisting they had the wrong man “might even have been tortious.” The concurrence opined that Baker foreclosed relief and the Eleventh Circuit case holding that a cause of action existed applied to a detention that was more than twice as long. The detention in Baker was three days, just like Sosa’s detention. The concurrence added, “It really is as simple as that.” The judge opined that incorporation theory of substantive due process should be chucked out in favor of reviving the Privileges or Immunities Clause and that substantive due process is a silly constitutional right that should not support 1983 claims.
JUDGE ROSENBAUM WROTE THE LONE DISSENT, but he made up for being alone by writing 59 pages. He opined that Baker did not foreclose the cause of action, and the majority was essentially on the wrong side since everyone agreed that Sosa was mistreated. The proper standard, he opined, was that a cause of action existed where the officers knew or should have known that Sosa was entitled to release. Judge Rosenbaum felt that the Fourth Amendment should not tolerate detention for days when jail deputies have the means available to definitively and easily determine that they have the wrong person. The detention was “unreasonable” and, therefore, unconstitutional.
Terry P. Roberts
Director of Appellate Practice Fischer Redavid PLLC