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Involuntary Servitude/Substantive Due Process

September 6, 2018

Terry A. Sides successfully defended several municipal police officers sued in federal court on claims they violated plaintiff’s civil rights against involuntary servitude and substantive due process, as guaranteed by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution. 

One of the police officers made a traffic stop of plaintiff because his car had no license plate. When the officer asked for plaintiff’s driver’s license, plaintiff admitted he didn’t have one. Plaintiff’s front seat passenger likewise had no identification. Moments later the passenger jumped from plaintiff’s car and ran into a nearby neighborhood. Plaintiff told the officer (as well other officers who later arrived on the scene) that the passenger was a convicted felon who had warrants outstanding for his arrest. Plaintiff, who was a convicted felon as well, also told the officers that the passenger was carrying a gun. 

Plaintiff (who is African-American) claimed the officers (who are Caucasian) threatened to impound his car, put him in jail, and charge him with various criminal offenses if he did not participate with and help them find and arrest the passenger. Plaintiff claimed he believed he had no choice in the matter, so he involuntarily agreed to help the officers. 

As the officers allegedly instructed him to do, plaintiff telephoned the passenger and persuaded him to meet at a designated pick-up location. The passenger agreed. After picking up the passenger, plaintiff drove to a nearby area where the officers told him they would be waiting to stop his car and apprehend the passenger. Upon seeing the officers, the passenger, while still in the car with plaintiff, began shooting at the officers. Two of the officers shot back. Both plaintiff and the passenger were injured in the gunfight. 

The officers sought summary judgment on several grounds, including qualified immunity, which protects all government officials from suit but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.  A government official’s entitlement to qualified immunity is only surrendered if pre-existing law dictates and truly compels the conclusion for every like-situated, reasonable government official, that the official’s conduct violates federal law in those circumstances. The focal question was whether the state of the law on the date of the officers’ conduct gave them fair warning that their alleged conduct was unconstitutional under the 13th and 14th Amendments. The officers argued that in exercising their discretionary authority to locate and arrest plaintiff’s passenger, clearly established federal law did not prohibit them from threatening to file criminal charges and the like against plaintiff unless he helped them.

The federal court agreed and granted the police officers qualified immunity. Regarding the 13th Amendment claim, after recognizing that no other court has decided this issue, the court concluded that it could not be said that the state of the law on the date of the officers’ conduct was clearly established and gave them fair warning that their alleged conduct was unconstitutional under the 13th Amendment.  The court noted that plaintiff did not dispute that he may have been guilty of some criminal offenses which warranted legal action against him (such as driving a car with an expired tag and no driver’s license), nor did he dispute that he had been carrying a felon as a passenger in his car who had outstanding arrest warrants, possession of a gun, and who had fled the scene of the traffic stop. The court concluded that under these circumstances, the officers had a right to threaten to tow plaintiff’s car and file certain criminal offenses against him, rather than allow him to simply drive away.

Plaintiff’s 14th Amendment substantive due process claim was that by allegedly threatening him, the officers deprived him of his ability to choose whether to voluntarily participate in their dangerous sting operation to capture the passenger, and the officers thereby acted with deliberate indifference to the safety risks posed to him by the operation.  Only for purposes of deciding the officers’ entitlement to qualified immunity, the court assumed that plaintiff had proved that the officers acted to deprive him of his 14th Amendment right to substantive due process.  But the court recognized that to overcome qualified immunity, plaintiff had to also prove that the right violated by the officers was clearly established, which, in this case, required plaintiff to establish that a reasonable officer would have known that the officers’ acts rendered plaintiff’s consent to participate in the sting operation involuntary.  In holding that plaintiff had failed to satisfy this burden, the court concluded that although the officers’ acts may have left plaintiff with the belief that he had no choice but to participate in the sting, the same acts (all of which were mere verbal, as opposed to physical acts) would not have been plainly or obviously coercive to a reasonable officer. Thus, the court held,  plaintiff’s 14th Amendment claim against the officers was also barred by qualified immunity.

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