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Thurairajah v. City of Fort Smith

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 3, 2019

Eric Roshaun Thurairajah Plaintiff- Appellee
City of Fort Smith, Arkansas; Sebastian County, Arkansas; State of Arkansas; Bill Hollenbeck, individually and in his official capacity as Sheriff for the County of Sebastian Defendants Trooper Lagarian Cross, individually and in his Official Capacity as a State Trooper with and for the State of Arkansas, also known as L. Cross Defendant-Appellant John Does 1-5, individually and in their official capacity in their roles as an employee of the City of Fort Smith, The State of Arkansas, The Arkansas State Police and/or Employee of Sebastian County Defendant

          Submitted: December 12, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas - Ft. Smith

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, WOLLMAN and GRASZ, Circuit Judges.


         Arkansas State Trooper Lagarian Cross appeals the district court's[1] denial of qualified immunity on summary judgment against Eric Roshaun Thurairajah's claims of First Amendment retaliation and Fourth Amendment unreasonable seizure. This § 1983 lawsuit suit stems from Trooper Cross's arrest of Thurairajah for disorderly conduct after Thurairajah yelled a two-word expletive at him from a moving vehicle. Trooper Cross believed the shout constituted unreasonable or excessive noise in violation of state law. The district court determined that Trooper Cross's action violated Thurairajah's clearly established constitutional rights. We agree with that analysis and affirm the denial of qualified immunity.

         I. Background

         In 2015, Trooper Cross was performing a routine traffic stop on a van pulled to the shoulder of a busy five-lane highway in Fort Smith, Arkansas. From 50 feet away, Trooper Cross heard Thurairajah, who was driving by, yell "f**k you!" out of his car window. The van's occupants were a mother and her two young children. Thurairajah was driving at about 35 miles-per-hour on the far lane of the road moving in the opposite direction. Trooper Cross observed the two children in the van react to the yell. Trooper Cross ended the traffic stop of the van and pursued Thurairajah, stopped him, and arrested him, citing Arkansas's disorderly conduct law. Trooper Cross believed the shout constituted "unreasonable or excessive noise" under the law. Ark. Code Ann. § 5-71-207(a)(2).[2]

         Thurairajah spent several hours in jail but then was released and all charges against him were dropped. He filed a § 1983 lawsuit against Trooper Cross alleging the trooper violated his First Amendment right to be free from retaliation and his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure. Trooper Cross moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court denied qualified immunity on both claims after concluding Trooper Cross's arrest violated Thurairajah's clearly established constitutional rights.

         II. Discussion

         On appeal, Trooper Cross asks us to reverse the district court's denial of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity will shield a state actor, like Trooper Cross, from legal liability unless: (1) he violated a constitutional right, and (2) that constitutional right was clearly established so that a reasonable officer would know of the right at the time of the alleged violation. See Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232 (2009).

         We review the denial of qualified immunity de novo, viewing the record in the light most favorable to Thurairajah and drawing all inferences in his favor. Ehlers v. City of Rapid City, 846 F.3d 1002, 1008 (8th Cir. 2017). If we find that either prong is not satisfied-that Thurairajah's constitutional rights were not violated or that any violated right was not so clearly established that Trooper Cross, as a reasonable officer, would have known that his actions were unlawful-then qualified immunity will apply. See Perry v. Woodruff Cty. Sheriff Dept. by and through Barker, 858 F.3d 1141, 1144-45 (8th Cir. 2017).

         A. Fourth Amendment

         Trooper Cross contends that he is entitled to qualified immunity on Thurairajah's Fourth Amendment claim for unreasonable seizure because (1) he had probable cause, or at least arguable probable cause, to arrest Thurairajah for violating Arkansas's disorderly conduct statute, Ark. Code Ann. § 5-71-207(a)(2); or (2) the relevant law pertaining to the disorderly conduct statute is not sufficiently clear to provide notice that an arrest would violate the Fourth Amendment.

         "A warrantless arrest is consistent with the Fourth Amendment if it is supported by probable cause, and an officer is entitled to qualified immunity if there is at least 'arguable probable cause.'" Borgman v. Kedley, 646 F.3d 518, 522-23 (8th Cir. 2011) (quoting Walker v. City of Pine Bluff, 414 F.3d 989, 992 (8th Cir. 2005)). An officer possesses probable cause to effectuate a warrantless arrest "when the totality of the circumstances at the time of the arrest 'are sufficient to lead a reasonable person to believe that the defendant has committed or is committing an offense.'" Id. at 523 (quoting Fisher v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. et al., 619 F.3d 811, 816 (8th Cir. 2010)). Arguable probable cause exists if Thurairajah's arrest "was based on an objectively reasonable-even if mistaken-belief that the arrest was based in probable cause." Ulrich v. Pope Cty., 715 F.3d 1054, 1059 (8th Cir. 2013). Arguable probable cause provides law enforcement officers in a qualified immunity analysis "an even wider berth for mistaken judgments" than the probable cause standard affords a reasonable person. Id. Analyzing whether arguable probable cause exists "necessarily includes consideration of probable cause." Id. In other words, Trooper Cross is protected by qualified immunity if a ...

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