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Buckley Christopher Secures an Eleventh Circuit Clarification of a Law Enforcement Officer's Duty to Investigate

April 12, 2022

Tim Buckley and Taylor Hensel secured a victory for a sheriff’s deputy accused of ignoring evidence in holding a suspect where (1) a confidential informant identified the suspect and (2) the suspect failed a polygraph test about the incident.  The suspect argued that when she was confronted with an alleged co-suspect (who was later convicted of the crime) between her arrest and her polygraph, he said “that’s not her” and that new evidence was enough to force the officer to release her immediately.  She filed suit on several grounds but the issue on appeal was solely whether her Fourth Amendment rights were violated by continuing to hold her after the co-suspect allegedly declared she was not involved.


In the opinion, the panel found three separate reasons that the suspect claims should be dismissed: (1) probable cause persisted throughout her detention, (2) the officer was entitled to rely upon the warrant, and (3) the officer did not take any affirmative action to continue the suspect’s prosecution.  In finding there to be probable cause, the panel took the opportunity to clarify the probable cause standard in the context of arrests.  In 2018, the Supreme Court articulated the standard to be whether a reasonable officer could conclude that there was a substantial chance of criminal activity.  District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S. Ct. 577, 586 (2018).  Before that decision, the standard was whether a reasonable officer would conclude that issue.  The Eleventh Circuit here acknowledged that they themselves often use the wrong standard but take this opinion to clarify that the Wesby standard is what is to be applied in the context of arrests.


Applying that standard to this case, the panel found that there were “plenty of reasons to doubt” the co-suspect recanted his identification while at the jail.  The co-suspect was accused (and, ultimately, convicted) of a violent crime, he only confessed after his grandmother pleaded with him to, and he obviously had motive to lie because he was being faced with the person he identified—if she knew he identified her, she would have “a motive to exact revenge” later. Regarding the second reason for dismissal, the officer was entitled to rely on the warrant because it was facially valid and lawfully obtained.  The suspect/plaintiff never argued that the warrant was invalid or contained any material irregularities.  Further, she agreed in the trial court that the warrant was valid.  It is of no moment that she was exonerated later.


Finally, the Eleventh Circuit ruled dismissal was proper because the suspect/plaintiff could not prove that the officer affirmatively acted to continue her prosecution.  Plaintiff argued that when the officer recanted his identification he should have immediately returned to the magistrate with the new information and requested the warrant be rescinded.  To be clear, the Fourth Amendment imposes no affirmative duty on an investigator to return to the magistrate after every twist and turn of an investigation.  There is no constitutional requirement to return to a magistrate after discovering exculpatory evidence.


This is a great win for our team and a clear clarification by the Eleventh Circuit regarding the Wesby standard going forward.  The opinion can be found HERE.

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