Baldridge v. Cordes

Decision Date26 September 2002
Docket NumberNo. 02-66.,02-66.
Citation350 Ark. 114,85 S.W.3d 511
PartiesJeffrey L. BALDRIDGE v. Jana CORDES, Arkansas State Police.
CourtArkansas Supreme Court

Cindy M. Baker, Berryville, for appellant.

Mark Pryor, Att'y Gen., by: Jill Jones Moore, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

W.H. "DUB" ARNOLD, Chief Justice.

Appellant Jeffrey Baldridge filed a civilrights suit in the Carroll County Circuit Court against Appellee Jana Cordes, an Arkansas State Trooper. The suit stems from Baldridge's arrest for driving while intoxicated, no liability insurance, and careless and imprudent driving. The trial court granted summary judgment to Cordes, and Baldridge appealed. Our jurisdiction of this appeal is pursuant to Ark. Sup.Ct. R. 1-2(a)(8) and (b)(5), as it presents issues needing clarification or development of the law. We find no error and affirm.

On August 9, 2000, Baldridge, and another individual were riding horses along the right-of-way U.S. Highway 62 in eastern Carroll County. The horse Baldridge was riding became frightened, and shied onto Highway 62, where a car hit the animal with the mirror of the automobile. The accident occurred after dark. At the scene, Arkansas State Trooper Cordes determined that Baldridge was intoxicated given her perception that he smelled of intoxicants, his eyes were bloodshot, his speech was slurred, he was loud, and he appeared unsteady on his feet.

Baldridge was arrested and taken to the Carroll County Sheriffs's Office where Trooper Cordes provided Baldridge with a statement of rights regarding a breathalyzer, and the penalties for refusing the breathalyzer. Baldridge submitted to two breathalyzer tests, one of which showed that Baldridge's blood alcohol content was .007, and another of .008. There were no field sobriety tests given, and no other blood alcohol tests given. Baldridge was acquitted of all charges by the municipal court.

On October 17, 2000, Baldridge filed a complaint in the Carroll County Circuit Court alleging that Jana L. Cordes, Arkansas State Police, in her individual capacity, had violated his Federal Constitutional rights and his State Constitutional rights, and also stated a claim for defamation of his character.

Cordes filed a motion for summary judgment based on the belief that her actions were covered by immunity. Despite Baldridge's request, no hearings were held on the motions, and the trial court entered summary judgment in favor of Cordes, on grounds that Cordes was entitled to qualified immunity from suit, and that the facts stated in the Baldridge complaint were insufficient to overcome her immunity. We agree, and affirm.

Summary Judgment

The law is well settled that summary judgment is to be granted by a trial court only when it is clear that there are no genuine issues of material fact to be litigated, and the party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Bond v. Lavaca School District, 347 Ark. 300, 64 S.W.3d 249 (2001); Dodson v. Taylor, 346 Ark. 443, 57 S.W.3d 710 (2001); Wallace v. Broyles, 331 Ark. 58, 961 S.W.2d 712 (1998), supp. opinion on denial of reh'g, 332 Ark. 189, 961 S.W.2d 712 (1998). Once the moving party has established a prima facie entitlement to summary judgment, the opposing party must meet proof with proof and demonstrate the existence of a material issue of fact. Bond, supra. On appellate review, we determine if summary judgment was appropriate based on whether the evidentiary items presented by the moving party in support of the motion leave a material fact unanswered. Id. We view the evidence in a light most favorable to the party against whom the motion was filed, resolving all doubts and inferences against the moving party. Id.

Qualified Immunity

A motion for summary judgment based upon qualified immunity is precluded only when the plaintiff has asserted a constitutional violation, demonstrated the constitutional right is clearly established and raised a genuine issue of fact as to whether the official would have known that the conduct violated that clearly established right. Smithson, v. Aldrich, 235 F.3d 1058 (8th Cir.2000). As applied by this court, the doctrine of qualified immunity is akin to its federal counterpart. Rainey v. Hartness, 339 Ark. 293, 5 S.W.3d 410 (1999). Thus, an official is immune from suit if his actions did not violate clearly established principles of law of which a reasonable person would have knowledge. Virden v. Roper, 302 Ark. 125, 788 S.W.2d 470 (1990); Flentje v. First National Bank of Wynne, 340 Ark. 563, 11 S.W.3d 531 (2000); Rudd v. Pulaski County Special School District, 341 Ark. 794, 20 S.W.3d 310 (2000) (qualified immunity under Arkansas law rests on the same scope and principles as under federal law.)

Arkansas Code Annotated § 19-10-305 (Supp.1999) provides in pertinent part: "Officers and employees of the State of Arkansas are immune from liability from suit, except to the extent that they may be covered by liability insurance, for damages for acts or omissions, other than malicious acts or omissions, occurring within the course and scope of their employment." This court has interpreted that section to mean that state officers and employees acting without malice and within the course and scope of their employment are immune from an award of damages in litigation. Rainey v. Hartness, 339 Ark. 293, 5 S.W.3d 410 (1999); Newton v. Etoch, 332 Ark. 325, 965 S.W.2d 96 (1998); Cross v. Arkansas Livestock & Poultry Comm'n, 328 Ark. 255, 943 S.W.2d 230 (1997). This court has recognized that the immunity provided by section 19-10-305 is similar to that provided by the Supreme Court for federal civil-rights claims. Robinson v. Langdon, 333 Ark. 662, 970 S.W.2d 292 (1998).

A court deciding the issue of qualified immunity "must first determine whether the plaintiff has alleged the deprivation of an actual constitutional right at all, and if so, proceed to determine whether that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation." Pace v. City of Des Moines, 201 F.3d 1050 (2000); Conn v. Gabbert, 526 U.S. 286, 119 S.Ct. 1292, 143 L.Ed.2d 399 (1999).

The right not to be arrested or prosecuted without probable cause has, of course, long been a clearly established constitutional right. Dunaway v. New York, 442 U.S. 200, 99 S.Ct. 2248, 60 L.Ed.2d 824 (1979); Robinson et. al. v. Beaumont et. al., 291 Ark. 477, 725 S.W.2d 839 (1987). An arresting officer is entitled to qualified immunity if the arrest was objectively reasonable, and officers of reasonable competence could disagree on whether the probable-cause test was met. Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed.2d 271 (1986). If the complaint alleges violation of a clearly established law, the suit should continue. Robinson, supra.

Baldridge asserts an unlawful arrest, unlawful search and seizure (breathalyzer), unlawful detainment (seizure of the individual without probable cause), deprivation of liberty and property (arrest without probable cause), all of which are allegations of violations of constitutional rights that were clearly established at the time of the actions complained of occurred. Baldridge also argues to this court that once a genuine issue of material fact is found to exist, the defense of qualified immunity shielding the defendant from trial must be denied.

Probable cause exists if "at the moment the arrest was made ... the facts and circumstances within [a police officer's] knowledge and of which [the officer] had reasonably trustworthy information were sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing" that the person arrested committed the crime with which he was charged. Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91, 85 S.Ct. 223, 13 L.Ed.2d 142 (1964). As this standard makes clear, there need not be actual probable cause for an officer to be shielded by qualified immunity; an objectively reasonable belief that there was probable cause is enough. Pace, supra; Thompson v. Renting, 968 F.2d 756 (8th Cir.1992).

In Walden v. Carmack, the Eighth Circuit stated, "A defendant need not show that there was only one reasonable conclusion ... on whether probable cause existed, but rather, a court should ask whether the ... officials acted reasonably under settled law in the circumstances then existing, not whether another reasonable, or more reasonable interpretation of the facts can be constructed years later." 156 F.3d 861 (8th Cir.1998). If there is a reasonable basis to conclude that probable cause existed, qualified immunity shields the officer from suit, and courts must take caution not to simply judge the officer's actions with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Tauke a. Stine, 120 F.3d 1363 (8th Cir.1997).

Of course, the burden remains on the proponent of the immunity to establish the relevant predicate facts, and at the summary-judgment stage the nonmoving party is given the benefit of all reasonable inferences. Pace, supra; Arnott v. Mataya, 995 F.2d 121, 124 (8th Cir.1993). In the event that a genuine dispute exists concerning predicate facts material to the qualified immunity issue, the defendant is not entitled to summary judgment on that ground. Pace, supra; Lambert v. City of Dumas, 187 F.3d at 935 (8th Cir.1999). What must be kept in mind, however, is that once the predicate facts have been established, for the purposes of qualified immunity there is no such thing as a "genuine issue of fact" as to whether an officer "should have known" that his conduct violated constitutional rights. Pace, supra. The conduct was either reasonable under settled law in the circumstances, or it was not, and this is a determination of law that should be made at the earliest possible stage in litigation. Pace, supra. Whether an officer acted reasonably under settled law in the circumstances is a question of law, and not itself a predicate fact. Pace, supra. "Predicate facts" include only the relevant circumstances and the acts of the parties themselves, and not the conclusions of...

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    ...would have known that the conduct violated that clearly established right. Fegans v. Norris, supra (citing Baldridge v. Cordes, 350 Ark. 114, 120–21, 85 S.W.3d 511, 514–15 (2002) ). An official is immune from suit if his or her actions did not violate clearly established principles of law o......
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