Eleventh Circuit Holds Officer Failed to Take Reasonable Steps to Address Exculpatory Information
Jeffrey Cozzi was arrested for the robbery of one pharmacy and the attempted robbery of another. However, Cozzi was released after the police found no evidence linking him to the crimes. Cozzi sued Officer Cedrick Thomas, the City of Birmingham, Alabama, and several other law enforcement officers alleging a violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful arrest. Cozzi v. City of Birmingham, 892 F.3d 1288 (11th Cir. 2018), cert. denied sub nom. Thomas v. Cozzi, 2018 WL 4539139 (U.S. 2018). The district court granted summary judgment to all defendants except for Officer Thomas. On appeal, Officer Thomas argued that he was entitled to qualified immunity because he had, at a minimum, arguable probable to arrest Cozzi.
On two consecutive days, a masked suspect demanded narcotics from, and robbed a Walgreens pharmacy and attempted to rob a Rite Aid pharmacy. Officer Thomas only investigated the Walgreens robbery while another officer investigated the Rite Aid attempt. During the investigation, a surveillance video of the attempted robbery was shown on the television program, Crime Stoppers. After the video aired, Crime Stoppers received an anonymous tip that Cozzi resembled the suspect. A confidential informant also identified the suspect as Cozzi.
Based on the tips, Officer Thomas obtained a search warrant for Cozzi’s home. While executing the warrant, the officers detained Cozzi outside his home in handcuffs. The officers found no mask and no clothing that matched the suspect. However, they recovered a plastic bag containing 32 loose pills that they found in a night stand and two locked safes. Cozzi's roommate, Michael Thompson, and Cozzi's girlfriend, Kara Antonoff, were home during the search. Officer Thomas showed Thompson a photograph of the suspect and Thompson “could see from the picture it was not [Cozzi] due to the perpetrator having multiple tattoos versus Cozzi having one.” Antonoff admitted that Cozzi looked like the suspect; however, she made that statement after Cozzi had already been transported to the police station. Cozzi was questioned and released the next day after Officer Thomas was unable to “find something that could substantiate a warrant for his arrest.” Cozzi later sued.
Officer Thomas argued that the following information established arguable probable cause for Cozzi's arrest: (1) the anonymous tip from Crime Stoppers; (2) the tip from the confidential informant; (3) the tips were “sufficiently detailed;” and (4) the plastic bag of loose pills. However, the Court found that before the arrest, Officer Thomas received easily verifiable exculpatory information from Thompson. Specifically, that Cozzi's single tattoo did not match the multiple tattoos visible on the suspect in the crime scene photograph. Officer Thomas refused to look at or inquire about the tattoo before arresting Cozzi. Therefore, Officer Thomas’s failure was unreasonable. Where a police officer “unreasonably disregarded certain pieces of evidence to establish probable cause or arguable probable cause, ... reasonable officers in the same circumstances and possessing the same knowledge as the [officer] could not have believed that probable cause existed to arrest the plaintiff.” As such, Officer Thomas was not entitled to qualified immunity.