412 F.3d 553 (4th Cir. 2005), 04-1548, Willingham v. Crooke

Docket Nº:04-1548.
Citation:412 F.3d 553
Party Name:Gloria WILLINGHAM, Plaintiff-Appellant, and Carl Jackson, Plaintiff, v. Douglas A. CROOKE, Sergeant, Defendant-Appellee, and Graham Buck, Officer; Sherry A. Bassett, Officer; Officer Brian; J. Thomas Manger, Chief of Police, County of Fairfax; Fairfax County Board of Supervisors; County of Fairfax; Anthony Griffin, County Executive, Defendants.
Case Date:June 23, 2005
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

Page 553

412 F.3d 553 (4th Cir. 2005)

Gloria WILLINGHAM, Plaintiff-Appellant,

and

Carl Jackson, Plaintiff,

v.

Douglas A. CROOKE, Sergeant, Defendant-Appellee,

and

Graham Buck, Officer; Sherry A. Bassett, Officer; Officer Brian; J. Thomas Manger, Chief of Police, County of Fairfax; Fairfax County Board of Supervisors; County of Fairfax; Anthony Griffin, County Executive, Defendants.

No. 04-1548.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

June 23, 2005

Argued May 25, 2005.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 555

ARGUED:

Paul Anthony Gowder, Jr., Victor M. Glasberg & Associates, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellant.

Robert Marvel Ross, County Attorney's Office for the County of Fairfax, Fairfax, Virginia, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

Victor M. Glasberg, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellant.

David P. Bobzien, County Attorney, Peter D. Andreoli, Jr., Deputy County Attorney, Fairfax, Virginia, for Appellee.

Before WILKINS, Chief Judge, and TRAXLER and KING, Circuit Judges.

Vacated and remanded by published opinion. Chief Judge WILKINS wrote the opinion, in which Judge TRAXLER and Judge KING joined.

OPINION

WILLIAM W. WILKINS, Chief Judge.

Gloria Willingham brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 (West 2003), alleging that she was arrested without probable cause, in violation of the Fourth Amendment, by Appellee Douglas A. Crooke, a sergeant with the Fairfax County, Virginia police department. 1 She appeals an order of the district court denying her motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or a new trial on damages, primarily maintaining that the district court erred in submitting the question of qualified immunity to the jury. She also challenges an evidentiary ruling of the district court. We conclude that the district court erred in instructing the jury on the legal question of whether, on the facts found by the jury, Sergeant Crooke was entitled to qualified immunity. Because this error was not harmless, we vacate the judgment and remand for a new trial. For the purpose of giving guidance to the district court, we also address the disputed evidentiary ruling.

I.

The parties agree that Willingham was arrested for obstruction of justice, see Va.Code Ann. § 18.2-460(A) (LexisNexis 2004), during the early morning hours of December 12, 1998. Beyond this, however, the facts are sharply disputed. We will set forth the facts in a manner consistent with the verdict, noting Willingham's differing version of events where pertinent to the issues before us.

Willingham and Carl Jackson Sr. (Jackson) arrived at Jackson's home shortly after midnight on December 12. At the home was Lelia Jackson (Lelia), the girlfriend of Jackson's son, Carl Jackson Jr. (Jackson Jr.). Lelia informed Jackson

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that she had contacted the police for assistance with a dispute with Jackson Jr. Jackson resolved the dispute, told Lelia to go home, and stated that he would inform the police that the situation had been resolved.

Shortly thereafter, Officers Sherry Bassett, 2 Brian Buckholtz, and Graham Buck arrived at the scene. Jackson would not allow the officers to enter the house. The officers informed Jackson that department policy required them to enter the residence to be sure that Lelia was safe. Jackson falsely told the officers that Lelia had had an argument with someone named "Eric" and that both had left the residence. When the officers repeated that they needed to enter the home to assure themselves of Lelia's safety, Jackson again refused.

The officers again explained to Jackson that they could not simply take his word about Lelia's safety. Jackson then informed the officers that his guest could confirm the story about Eric. The officers agreed to let Jackson bring his guest to the door, but asked him not to talk to her and to leave the door open while he went into the house to get her. Jackson went inside and called for Willingham. Officer Buck observed Jackson talking to Willingham and asked him to stop. He then asked Willingham what was going on, and she replied "I'm sorry, I can't tell you anything until Carl tells me what's going on." J.A. 389 (internal quotation marks omitted). Jackson then came back to the door.

At this point, the officers asked Jackson if there was any way to contact Lelia. Jackson stated that he had her telephone number, and he agreed to leave the door open while he retrieved it. While Jackson was getting his address book, Willingham came to the door and attempted to close it. Officer Buck explained that Jackson had agreed to leave the door open, but Willingham nevertheless attempted to close it. Officer Buck placed his foot in the doorway to stop her from doing so. Willingham then stated, "Sir, I'm a lawyer. I respect the law, but you need to allow me to close this door." Id. at 390 (internal quotation marks omitted). Officer Buck refused this request, at which time Willingham asked for his name and badge number. 3

When Jackson returned to the front door, Willingham went back into the house. Officer Bassett telephoned Lelia, who told Officer Bassett that she thought there were outstanding warrants for the arrest of Jackson Jr. Officer Bassett confirmed that three such warrants were pending. Each warrant, and records at the Department of Motor Vehicles, listed Jackson's address as the residence of Jackson Jr. When the officers approached Jackson with this information, however, Jackson denied that Jackson Jr. lived there. At this point, Officer Bassett called for a supervisor, and Sergeant Crooke arrived shortly thereafter. Sergeant Crooke informed Jackson, who had come outside, that the officers intended to enter the house to arrest Jackson Jr. and began walking toward the door. Jackson followed Sergeant Crooke to the door and attempted to stop him from opening it by grabbing the officer's arm. Sergeant

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Crooke pushed Jackson away and directed Officer Buck to arrest Jackson for obstruction of justice.

According to the officers, Willingham's arrest occurred as follows. Sergeant Crooke, followed closely by Officer Bassett, entered the residence. They did not have their guns drawn at this time. They encountered Willingham, who immediately began to ask the officers why they were in the home. She was "[v]ery animated, exaggerated, all theatrical, excited" as she began to walk toward the officers. Id. at 240. When she was within two feet of Sergeant Crooke, he informed her that they had entered the house to arrest Jackson Jr. and that she should sit down. Willingham briefly sat down, but then rose and stood in front of Sergeant Crooke as he tried to proceed. Sergeant Crooke again asked Willingham to sit down, warning her that she was in danger of being arrested for obstruction of justice. Willingham stepped aside. However, by the time Sergeant Crooke had taken two or three more steps, Willingham was in front of him again. At this point, Sergeant Crooke arrested her.

Willingham's account of her arrest differs substantially from that of the officers. According to Willingham, Sergeant Crooke entered the residence behind Officer Bassett, using his fellow officer as a shield. Sergeant Crooke had his firearm pointed at Willingham's head and kept it there despite Willingham's pleas for him not to point the weapon at her. Willingham asked Sergeant Crooke if he had a warrant, and he replied, "No, not yet." Id. at 116 (internal quotation marks omitted). Sergeant Crooke then shouted, "Come and get her," id., at which point an officer (presumably Officer Buck) entered the residence and placed Willingham in handcuffs.

Willingham was subsequently tried for obstruction of justice and acquitted. She thereafter filed this action, asserting various state and federal claims, including the Fourth Amendment claim at issue in this appeal. 4 Prior to trial, the district court granted summary judgment to Sergeant Crooke on the Fourth Amendment claim, concluding that he was entitled to qualified immunity. 5 This court reversed, holding that "[t]he evidence reveals a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Willingham obstructed Crooke and Bassett from searching the house for [Jackson Jr.]." Willingham v. Crooke, 40 Fed.Appx. 850, 852 (4th Cir.2002) (per curiam).

On remand, the case was tried before a jury. Over Willingham's objection, the district court gave the jury the following instruction regarding qualified immunity:

If you find that Ms. Willingham has proven her constitutional claim of being arrested without probable cause, you must then consider the defense of [Sergeant] Crooke that his conduct was objectively reasonable in light of the legal rules clearly established at the time of the incident ... and that he is therefore not liable. This is known as the defense of qualified immunity.

Police officers are presumed to know about the clearly established constitutional rights of citizens. In this case,

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Ms. Willingham's constitutional right not to be arrested without probable cause was a clearly established right.

If after considering the scope of discretion and responsibility generally given to police officers in the performance of their duties and after considering all of the surrounding circumstances of the case as they would have reasonably appeared at the time of the arrest you find from a preponderance of the evidence that Ms. Willingham has proved that [Sergeant] Crooke knowingly violated the law regarding Ms. Willingham's constitutional rights, you must find for Ms. Willingham.

If, however, you find that [Sergeant] Crooke had a reasonable belief that his action did not violate the constitutional rights of Ms. Willingham, then you cannot find [Sergeant] Crooke liable even if Ms. Willingham's rights were, in fact, violated as a result of his objectively reasonable action.

Tr. Trans., Vol. III, at 607-08. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Sergeant Crooke.

II.

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