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Qualified Immunity Denied to Officer Based on Lack of Probable Cause to Arrest

Defendants/Appellants, Deputy Jamie McGowan and Sheriff Wayne Ivey appealed the district court’s order which denied their motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds on Leroy Berry’s constitutional claim of false arrest under the Fourth Amendment and Florida state-law. Berry v. McGowan, 2018 WL 3569323 (11th Cir. 2018). The record showed that on December 22, 2010, Berry was driving home from work when he saw a large group blocking the road. Two of Berry’s cousins, Melvena Espanosa and Alantra McDaniel, were in the group, so he stopped to find out what was happening. Berry learned that Ms. McDaniel had been in a fight with two older females, and Ms. Espanosa had called the police to seek assistance in breaking up the fight.

Deputy McGowan was the responding officer and, when he arrived, he believed that the fight was still in progress. At this time, the other females involved in the fight had already begun to leave the area; however, Ms. McDaniel was still visibly upset. Berry attempted to calm her down as Deputy McGowan ran toward the retreating females. Berry wrapped his arms around Ms. McDaniel to stop her from proceeding but, as Deputy McGowan approached, Deputy McGowan grabbed her arm to escort her away from the situation.

According to Berry and several witnesses, Berry immediately released Ms. McDaniel to Deputy McGowan’s custody and he did not touch Deputy McGowan. However, Deputy McGowan alleged that Deputy McGowan chased Ms. McDaniel down and took her by the arm to lead her away and, at that time, Berry grabbed Deputy McGowan to force him to let go of Ms. McDaniel. It is undisputed, however, that Deputy McGowan ultimately got control of Ms. McDaniel and walked her away from Berry.

Deputy DeWind arrived at the scene and escorted Berry to his patrol car. Berry was informed that he was under arrest for battery on a law enforcement officer. Deputy McGowan further claimed that Berry refused verbal commands and attempted to pull his arms apart in an effort to avoid being handcuffed. In March 2011, Berry was tried before a jury for the crime of battery on a law enforcement officer and was found not guilty on those charges. After his acquittal, Berry filed the present case against Deputy McGowan and Sheriff Ivey, alleging that Sheriff Ivey was vicariously liable for Deputy McGowan’s actions.

The Court relied on several witness accounts that claimed that Berry did not touch Deputy McGowan. As such, Deputy McGowan did not have arguable probable cause to arrest Berry for battery on a law enforcement officer. As a result, Deputy McGowan and Sheriff Ivey were not entitled to qualified immunity on Berry’s claim.

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