CA6: Arrest was reasonable based on reasonable mistake of law or fact

The officers here had a reasonable basis for arresting plaintiff for obstruction of an officer, whether it was based on a reasonable mistake of fact or of law. And that plays into qualified immunity. Barrera v. City of Mount Pleasant, 20-1863 (6th Cir. Sept. 3, 2021):

The officers directly observed Barrera’s refusal to identify himself when ordered to do so. No one doubts what he did. What the parties debate is whether the relevant state law, a Michigan statute, criminalizes this conduct.

That reality introduces an analytical complication, one that requires a brief digression. What part of the qualified immunity inquiry does a dispute over the meaning of a state law implicate? The first question: Did the officers violate the citizen’s constitutional right? Or the second one: Did the officers violate a clearly established right? Both are in play, it seems to us, and either one permits a federal court to resolve a qualified-immunity defense without deciding exactly what the state law means.

One possibility is that a constitutional violation never arises in the first place because, even if the officers misread state law, the mistake was a reasonable one. Just as a reasonable mistake of fact does not violate an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights, so a reasonable mistake of law does not violate them either.

Heien v. North Carolina illustrates the point. 574 U.S. 54, 66, 135 S.Ct. 530, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014). Officers mistook whether North Carolina law required one brake light or both of them to be in working order. Even so, the Court held that “reasonable suspicion can rest on a mistaken understanding of the scope of a legal prohibition.” Id. at 60, 135 S.Ct. 530. “To be reasonable is not to be perfect,” the Court explained, “and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them ‘fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection.’ ” Id. at 60–61, 135 S.Ct. 530 (quoting Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 176, 69 S.Ct. 1302, 93 L.Ed. 1879 (1949)). A law may prohibit “vehicles” in the park and the state courts eventually will finally resolve whether it “covers Segways or not,” but until then the Fourth Amendment tolerates reasonable mistakes with respect to an officer’s “quick decision” about the scope of the law. Id. at 66, 135 S.Ct. 530. In this setting, when an officer reasonably misinterprets the meaning of state law, there is “no violation of the Fourth Amendment in the first place.” Id. Favorable case law goes a long way to showing that an interpretation is reasonable. United States v. Diaz, 854 F.3d 197, 204–05 (2d Cir. 2017); cf. Heien, 574 U.S. at 70, 135 S.Ct. 530 (Kagan, J., concurring) (suggesting that an officer’s mistake of statutory interpretation is reasonable when a “reasonable judge could agree with the officer’s view”).

The other possibility is that the ambiguity in state law shows that the officers did not violate a clearly established right—the second prong of the qualified immunity test. While this inquiry is similar to the reasonable mistake-of-law test, it is not the same. The reasonable mistake-of-law “inquiry is not as forgiving as the one employed in the distinct context of deciding whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity for a constitutional or statutory violation.” Heien, 574 U.S. at 67, 135 S.Ct. 530. The more forgiving question asks only whether, at the time of the officer’s conduct, the law was “sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would [understand] that what he is doing” violates the law—so clear that the invalidity of the officer’s actions was “beyond debate.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011) (quotation omitted). This rigorous standard covers “all but the plainly incompetent” officer. Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed.2d 271 (1986).

Wesby illustrates this point. …

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