For Those Who Don’t Think Cops Lie . . .
This deserves to be placed in the You Can’t Believe This Shit Happens file—Webb v. United States, 2015 WL3756919 (6th Cir. 2015). Hot off the presses, this decision was published on June 17, 2015.
Two guys, Webb and Price were caught up in Operation Turnaround, a dragnet conducted by federal and local law enforcement agencies to round up suspected drug dealers. Bray was a confidential informant enlisted to help. As part of this operation, Bray did the usual—made a call to a suspected drug dealer, get buy money from the cops, get wired to record the transactions, the buy would happen, Bray would head back to the station and give a statement. Two dozen defendants were caught up in this and they were charged with violating federal drug laws. DEA agent Lucas testified and secured indictments from the Grand Jury.
Only, Bray used “stand-ins” to participate in these drugs deals, and then falsely identified the stand-ins as targets of the Operation. A number of DEA agents got involved—they wrote false reports, they made false in-court identifications, and generally approved of Bray’s unconscionable conduct setting up innocent people. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) got involved and ultimately the convictions of the falsely accused where vacated, and Bray and Lucas (and another, Metcalf) were prosecuted. Webb and Price sued for violations of their civil rights.
Shockingly (at least to me), the district court granted the cops’ motions for summary judgment. As to Webb, the judge concluded there was probable cause for his arrest, and that the indictment by the grand jury additionally showed there was probable cause. As to Price, the judge concluded there was “no injury in fact” because he was incarcerated on other charges when he was convicted here. He also found qualified immunity for the cops because there was probable cause to believe that Price sold the drugs.
The Sixth Circuit reversed. Thank God.
The 6th Circuit found that Price could bring his claim (the district judge found no injury in fact) because he was injured! He was convicted of a crime he didn’t do! As the Court found, “it is objectively unreasonable to frame an inmate.” Good to know.
The 6th Circuit further found, with respect to Webb, that the lower court’s finding that the grand jury’s indictment purged the taint of the misconduct is wrong because it is a genuine issue of material fact whether Lucas lied to them too. He is, after all, a liar. Also, the stand-in that Bray used to set up Webb did not look like Webb. Lucas’s disregard of that fact is not entitled to qualified immunity. Also, there was no question that Lucas helped to prosecute Webb because he consulted with the prosecutor, and the prosecutor testified he relied on Lucas in his decision to prosecute.
It’s hard to imagine any more despicable and abominable police misconduct than intentionally framing innocent people, but this case goes to show that it really does happen. Almost as disturbingly, the victims of this misconduct were nearly tossed out of court while trying to hold the cops accountable because the officers had “immunity.” At least for now their claims will go forward.
My favorite line from the opinion: “Freedom from malicious prosecution is a clearly established Fourth Amendment right.” Sykes v. Anderson, 625 F.3d 294, 308 (6th Cir. 2010).