CA8: Ignoring exculpatory evidence before a child abuse seizure of children denies QI to officers

After the first round of discovery, officers who seized children from a home on a bizarre and unsubstantiated allegation from a sibling don’t yet get qualified immunity. “Thus, although the investigators went to the home with the intent to remove the children, this was a child abuse situation that cried out for investigation and confirmation.” They hadn’t when they took the children, and there was substantial exculpatory evidence they ignored. Stanley v. Finnegan, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 22226 (8th Cir. Aug. 10, 2018):

The issue in this case is properly framed by cases establishing the Fourth Amendment standard that applies to police officers and investigators in making arrests and other seizures. The standard is well established in this circuit. Cause or suspicion warranting a seizure must exist at the moment of the seizure. Ripson v. Alles, 21 F.3d 805, 808 (8th Cir. 1994). “An officer contemplating an arrest is not free to disregard plainly exculpatory evidence, even if substantial inculpatory evidence (standing by itself) suggests that probable cause exists.” Kuehl v. Burtis, 173 F.3d 646, 650 (8th Cir. 1999); see Ross v. City of Jackson, No. 17-1390, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 20775, 2018 WL 3581468, at *4 (8th Cir. July 26, 2018); Womack v. City of Bellefontaine Neighbors, 193 F.3d 1028, 1031 (8th Cir. 1999).

Here, Finnegan, Sergeant Wright, and the other investigators went to the Stanleys’ home based on bizarre accusations by teenager Jonathan that, if true, gave reason to believe Jonathan’s minor siblings were in danger of continuing child abuse. But a month earlier, another investigator had “unsubstantiated” Jonathan’s earlier allegations, and proper research would have shown, as an email from a DHS supervisor attached to the Complaint reported the day after the warrant search, that “MMS is legal and promoted as a cure for the simple cold to acne to the flu and to other more serious diseases.” Thus, although the investigators went to the home with the intent to remove the children, this was a child abuse situation that cried out for investigation and confirmation. After five hours, the five youngest children had been interviewed; they denied abuse in the home and said they loved their parents; a doctor had medically examined each child and concluded they were healthy and showed no signs of abuse or symptoms of poisoning; and the DHS investigators had concluded that the home was safe and the children were happy, healthy, in no danger, and should not be taken into custody. Yet, Sergeant Wright, at the “insistence” of Finnegan, ordered the children removed, compelling DHS to take custody and beginning a twenty-one month ordeal for the family.

As the district court concluded, it was clearly established at the time Finnegan acted that reasonable suspicion was required to remove the Stanley children from their home and their parents’ custody. Like probable cause to arrest, reasonable suspicion to seize children must exist at the moment of the seizure, and an official is not free to disregard plainly exculpatory evidence when it undermines substantial inculpatory evidence that reasonable suspicion exists. The Complaint raises a fair inference that Finnegan was aware of the substantial exculpatory evidence developed during the five-hour investigation before Finnegan and Sergeant Wright made the decision to remove. The Complaint also raises the inference that the decision to remove was motivated by disagreement with the Stanleys’ decision to home-school their children in an isolated environment. Though perhaps unlikely, this theory is not implausible. “[A] well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable, and that a recovery is very remote and unlikely.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. The factually supported claim against Finnegan at issue on appeal lies well within that liberal pleading standard and therefore survives a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity.

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