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In Rare Decision, Federal Court Refuses to Grant Qualified Immunity to Overzealous Cop

A federal court declined to extend liability protection to an overzealous police officer in a rare decision on Wednesday.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit refused to grant Clovis, New Mexico police officer Brent Aguilar the controversial shield of qualified immunity after he arrested Jorge Ray Corona for resisting arrest and concealing his identity “after he did not produce identification in response to the officer’s demand for ID.”

Corona was sitting in the backseat of a car that Aguilar and another officer had pulled over during a routine traffic stop. There was never any reason for the police to request Corona’s identification–but they did so anyway and got upset when he refused. This resulted in his arrest and charges that ultimately went nowhere.

“The district attorney’s office dismissed the concealing-identity charge, and a jury later acquitted [Corona] of the charge against him for resisting, evading, or obstructing an officer,” the court notes.

Corona later sued Aguilar and his fellow officer Travis Loomis as well as the the City of Clovis and the Clovis Police Department.

Fashioned as a federal Civil Rights claim under 42 U.S.C. §1983, Corona alleged that he was deprived of his constitutional rights, including, most relevantly “his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful arrest by arresting him without probable cause.”

On August 3, 2014, Corona was in the back seat of a vehicle that was pulled over. Aguilar had instructed the driver to roll down the back window as she searched for her documents and began shining his police flashlight into the backseat. Corona eventually inquired about the reason for the stop but was effectively told to shut up.

After Corona asked what the driver had done wrong a second time, Aguilar noted that Corona was not driving but followed up by asking for his ID. Corona answered in the negative and asked Aguilar again. The scene quickly replayed itself several times over.

The appeals court paints a picture:

In response to Plaintiff’s question, Defendant Aguilar said, “You’re not driving, buddy. You got ID?” Plaintiff responded, “Nah. Why you stopping us?” Defendant Aguilar replied, “Let me have your ID.” Again, Plaintiff asked Defendant Aguilar why he stopped them, and Defendant Aguilar once again responded, “Let me have your ID.” Plaintiff immediately asked again, “Why you stopping us?” Defendant Aguilar responded, “I’m going to ask you one more time, and then I’m going to place you under arrest,” and asked Plaintiff for his ID. Plaintiff asked, “For what?” Defendant Aguilar then ordered Plaintiff to step out of the vehicle. During this approximately fifteen-second interaction, the driver continued to search for her license.

Corona exited the vehicle and continued to question Aguilar about his motivation for the traffic stop while being handcuffed. Eventually, Loomis arrived and told Corona that he was being arrested for concealing his identity. Corona then began to protest his treatment–saying that he had never actually concealed his identity. He also told the police, “You didn’t even ask me what my name was.”

Violence quickly followed.

“While Defendant Aguilar led [Corona] to the patrol car, [Corona] repeatedly stated that he did not conceal his identity,” the court notes, casting doubt on the use of force. “Aguilar then told [Corona] three times in a normal tone of voice, ‘Come on. Come on. Stop. Stop. Stop. Come on. I asked you for your ID.’ Defendant Aguilar then slammed [Corona] to the ground and loudly commanded, ‘Stop, stop.’ A few moments later, Defendant Aguilar informed [Corona], ‘Now you are under arrest for resisting and evading too.'”

After being absolved of the charges, Corona sued in state court before his lawsuit was removed to federal court. Aguilar attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed based on the idea that he, as a police officer, is entitled to qualified immunity from such a lawsuit.

Qualified immunity is a judge-made legal doctrine (see: Supreme Court in 1967). Through a series of decisions, the doctrine was steadily developed to claw back the rights of citizens to force redress from the government over constitutional violations–enshrined in the Civil Rights Act’s §1983.

The modern doctrine holds, “Qualified immunity shields federal and state officials from money damages unless a plaintiff pleads facts showing (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was ‘clearly established’ at the time of the challenged conduct.”

The lower court ruled against Aguilar’s bid for summary judgment–essentially setting the stage for Corona’s lawsuit to proceed.

“The district court first determined that a reasonable jury could find Defendant Aguilar violated [Corona’s] Fourth Amendment right by arresting him without probable cause,” the 10th Circuit noted. “The district court then concluded Defendant Aguilar was not entitled to qualified immunity because [Corona’s] right to be free from unlawful arrest under the circumstances here was clearly established at the relevant time.”

The appeals court also went on to dispense with Aguilar’s various arguments for extending the oft-criticized cop-protection doctrine.

“To be sure, [Corona’s] repetitive questioning about why Defendant Aguilar had stopped the vehicle could fairly be characterized as rude and insolent,” the judges mused. “But neither rudeness nor insolence constitutes resistance or abuse of an officer under [the relevant New Mexico law].”

Aguilar repeatedly argued that it was his right under the law to question Corona and ask him for identification. This is true, the judges note, but that’s not really the question at issue when it comes to the Fourth Amendment.

Again the decision at length [emphasis in original]:

The question remaining, then, is whether [Corona] refused to obey a lawful police command. Defendant Aguilar insists we should answer this question in the affirmative because [Corona] failed to comply with his order to produce identification. But Defendant Aguilar’s circular reasoning rests upon a flawed foundation—namely, that he could lawfully order [Corona] to produce identification on pain of arrest absent “reasonable suspicion of some predicate, underlying crime.” Allowing Defendant Aguilar to stand on [Corona’s] failure to produce identification as the sole basis to arrest him for concealing identity would not only fly in the face of this court’s decision in [another case] but also toss to the wind Supreme Court precedent…

Aguilar’s initial request for ID may have been lawful, but he could not—in the absence of ‘reasonable suspicion of some predicate, underlying crime’—lawfully arrest Plaintiff for concealing identity based solely on his failure or refusal to identify himself.

The court also considered whether, as Aguilar alleged, Corona’s behavior impeded his investigatory abilities as a police officer–and found that idea lacking as well.

“[D]uring the roughly fifteen seconds that elapsed between the moment [Corona] first asked Defendant Aguilar why he stopped them and when he was ordered to exit the vehicle and placed under arrest, the driver was still searching for her identification,” the court notes. “In light of all this, a jury might reasonably find [Corona’s] conduct did not interfere with Defendant Aguilar’s discharge of his lawful duties and Defendant Aguilar lacked arguable probable cause to arrest [Corona] for concealing identity.”

[Image via YouTube screengrab]

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