Torchinsky v. Siwinski

Decision Date09 August 1991
Docket NumberNo. 90-2660,90-2660
Citation942 F.2d 257
PartiesWilliam TORCHINSKY; Sylvia Torchinsky, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. SIWINSKI, individually, and as Deputy Sheriff of Guilford County, North Carolina; the County of Guilford, North Carolina, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Arthur Alexander Vreeland, Carruthers & Roth, P.A., Greensboro, N.C., for plaintiffs-appellants.

James Edwin Pons, Deputy County Atty., Guilford County Attys. Office, Greensboro, N.C., for defendants-appellees.

Before PHILLIPS and WILKINSON, Circuit Judges, and MERHIGE, Senior District Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting by designation.


WILKINSON, Circuit Judge:

This appeal illustrates the importance of qualified immunity in protecting law enforcement officers from litigation that could impair their ability to protect the public. In this case, Deputy Sheriff E.L. Siwinski sought the arrest of appellants William and Sylvia Torchinsky after the victim of a brutal assault identified them as his assailants. Siwinski's supervisor corroborated his judgment that he had probable cause to believe the appellants committed the assault. A magistrate confirmed those judgments by issuing arrest warrants against the appellants. In addition, the district court upon reviewing the evidence in this case determined that probable cause to arrest was present.

Under these circumstances, Siwinski acted with objective reasonableness and is thus entitled to immunity from appellants' § 1983 claim against him. We also conclude that appellants cannot recover against Siwinski's municipal employer under § 1983 because they have failed to prove that a policy or custom of the municipality caused the alleged deprivation of their rights. Finally, we hold that the district court properly declined to exercise pendent jurisdiction over appellants' state law claims. The judgment of the district court is thus affirmed.


On the morning of July 30, 1987, Deputy Siwinski, a detective with the Guilford County Sheriff's Department, was assigned to investigate an apparent assault on Bill Bull. After a neighbor had discovered Bull battered and bloodied outside his home earlier that morning, he had been transported to a hospital. At that time, Bull related to another deputy several conflicting accounts of how he was injured, including that he had been in an auto accident and that he had been assaulted in his home by two black males. At the hospital, Siwinski briefly interviewed Bull. Bull again indicated that an auto accident had caused his injuries. Siwinski, however, doubted this explanation because Bull's injuries were consistent not with an accident but rather with an assault. A visit to Bull's home strengthened Siwinski's belief that Bull had been the victim of an assault. There Siwinski found evidence of a struggle including broken furniture and two sets of bloody footprints on the porch, one set noticeably smaller than the other.

Siwinski then began interviewing Bull's acquaintances to determine who might have assaulted him. These acquaintances informed Deputy Siwinski that Bull was bisexual and had had a homosexual relationship with a man named "Stanley." The information Siwinski gathered led him to suspect that Stanley might have assaulted Bull and the detective sought to pursue this theory by interviewing Bull.

On the evening of July 31, Siwinski went to the hospital to interview Bull. Siwinski asked Bull whether Stanley had beaten him. Bull responded that "Bill Torchinsky" had assaulted him. Siwinski then confirmed with Bull that he was stating that Bill Torchinsky committed the assault. Siwinski had learned earlier in his investigation that Torchinsky and Bull were business partners. Acting on this information, Siwinski left the hospital around midnight and drove to the Torchinsky residence. Once there he observed that no vehicles were in the driveway and that the house appeared to be unoccupied.

On the morning of August 1, Siwinski conferred with his supervisor, Sergeant Richard Jackson. He told Jackson that Bull had identified Bill Torchinsky as his assailant and that no activity was apparent at the Torchinsky residence. In addition, Siwinski informed Jackson that Bull had earlier given differing accounts of how he sustained his injuries. Jackson directed Deputy Siwinski to reinterview Bull to determine whether he adhered to his implication of Bill Torchinsky. If so, Jackson instructed Siwinski to tape record Bull's statement.

Based on these instructions, Siwinski returned to the hospital later that same morning. Siwinski interviewed Bull with a nurse present. Bull stated that Bill Torchinsky as well as his wife Sylvia had beaten him. Bull also stated that he was involved sexually with both Torchinskys. The nurse confirmed that Bull identified the Torchinskys as his attackers and as his sexual partners. Siwinski next turned on his tape recorder and attempted to have Bull reiterate his statements. * At this point, however, Bull began to tire and become drowsy. In addition, Deputy Siwinski apparently had problems operating the tape recorder. Consequently, the detective was unable to record a complete version of Bull's statement.

After the interview, Siwinski again conferred with Sergeant Jackson about the investigation and played the interview tape for him. Jackson expressed his belief that probable cause was present. Siwinski then presented the evidence to a North Carolina state court magistrate who issued arrest warrants for Bill and Sylvia Torchinsky. On the afternoon of August 1, the Torchinskys were arrested. Later that evening, they were released on bond. One or two days later, Bull was informed that the Torchinskys had been arrested. Bull responded that the Torchinskys were not actually his attackers. Upon learning this information, the County District Attorney dismissed the charges against the Torchinskys.

On January 24, 1989 the Torchinskys sued Siwinski and Guilford County in federal district court alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and asserting various state law claims such as malicious prosecution. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants on the § 1983 claim, ruling that Siwinski had probable cause to have the Torchinskys arrested, and that therefore no constitutional violation had occurred. Accordingly, the court also dismissed the § 1983 claim against the County. Finally, the district court declined to exercise pendent jurisdiction over the Torchinskys' state law claims.

The Torchinskys now appeal the district court's judgment.


To address the Torchinskys' § 1983 claim, we need not formally resolve, as the district court did, whether the Torchinskys were arrested without probable cause. Even if this was so, Siwinski could still be entitled to qualified immunity and the Torchinskys' suit would be barred. See, e.g., Lowrance v. Pflueger, 878 F.2d 1014, 1017 (7th Cir.1989). Thus, we need only determine whether Siwinski--a deputy sheriff performing within the normal course of his employment--acted with the objective reasonableness necessary to entitle him to qualified immunity. See, e.g., Osabutey v. Welch, 857 F.2d 220, 224 (4th Cir.1988). This determination is ultimately a question of law for this court. See Collinson v. Gott, 895 F.2d 994, 998 (4th Cir.1990) (Phillips, J., concurring in the judgment).


The basic purposes of qualified immunity bear repeating. The grant of qualified immunity to government officials ensures that these officials can perform their duties free from the specter of endless and debilitating lawsuits. See Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 638, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 3038, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987). Without such an immunity, the operations of government would be immobilized. "[P]ermitting damages suits against government officials can entail substantial social costs, including the risk that fear of personal monetary liability and harassing litigation will unduly inhibit officials in the discharge of their duties." Id. These concerns are particularly acute when the officials are police officers investigating a crime of violence. The police must have the ability to move quickly to solve the crime before the evidence becomes stale, a victim-witness dies, or the perpetrator has a chance to repeat the crime. The ability of police officers to protect the public can be severely hampered, however, if their every decision is subject to second-guessing in a lawsuit.

To guard against these crippling effects, the Supreme Court has "emphasized that qualified immunity questions should be resolved at the earliest possible stage of a litigation." Anderson, 483 U.S. at 646 n. 6, 107 S.Ct. at 3042 n. 6. Thus, a particularly appropriate procedure for determining an official's entitlement to qualified immunity is summary judgment. See, e.g., Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 817-18, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2737-38, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). "The entitlement is an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability; ... it is effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial." Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 2815, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985).

Because qualified immunity is designed to shield officials not only from ultimate liability but also from the hardships of litigation itself, "the immunity shield is necessarily more protective than is the defense on the merits." Gott, 895 F.2d at 998. This broader protection is reflected in a test of "objective reasonableness" for entitlement to qualified immunity. See, e.g., Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 344, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 1097, 89 L.Ed.2d 271 (1986). This objective test involves an inquiry into whether a government official has violated "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. at 818, 102 S.Ct. at 2738. Under this formulation, a plaintiff may prove that...

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