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The Eleventh Circuit Grants Qualified Immunity to Officers Responding to an Altercation that did not Establish who Instigated the Altercation

January 30, 2019

            Officers of the Georgia Southern University (“GSU”) Division of Public Safety arrested Charles Rankin at a tailgate outside the football stadium for instigating an altercation with a drunken attendee. Rankin filed suit against the officers and the district court ruled that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. Rankin v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. Sys. of Georgia, 732 Fed. Appx. 779 (11th Cir. 2018). As a result, Rankin appealed.

 

            Rankin was a Corporal in the Georgia State Patrol. He took his ten-year-old son to the GSU football game. Although Rankin was off-duty, he notified the GSU Division of Public Safety that he would be in attendance and carrying a firearm. While at the tailgate, Stuart Smith, noticeably drunk, stumbled onto the scene. Rankin asked Smith to leave. Smith began cussing in front of Rankin’s son. Smith then struck Rankin, and a scuffle ensued. GSU officers quickly arrived at the scene and sprayed Rankin and Smith with pepper spray. Rankin was arrested for affray and booked in the county jail. After Rankin’s release, another GSU officer obtained an arrest warrant for Rankin, and Rankin was again booked on an affray charge, which was ultimately dropped.

 

            On appeal, Rankin argued that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity because “an arrest without a warrant and lacking probable cause violates the [Fourth Amendment].”  Specifically, Rankin argued that the officers lacked arguable probable cause because all the evidence indicated that Smith was the initial aggressor and that Rankin acted in self-defense. However, neither fact affects the probable cause inquiry. For purposes of affray, it doesn’t matter who struck first and whether Rankin acted in self-defense goes to an affirmative defense, not to probable cause. The existence of an affirmative defense does not vitiate probable cause where the officers witness seemingly unlawful conduct.  Therefore, Rankin’s initial arrest and subsequent arrest pursuant to the arrest warrant were based on arguable probable cause by the officers witnessing Rankin and Smith scuffle, and the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

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