Police civil liability:  Maryland federal court grants summary judgment in racial profiling case

On February 7, 2012 the U.S. District Court of Maryland issued a memorandum opinion granting summary judgment to the defendant police officers in a civil lawsuit alleging liability for unlawful arrest (allegedly due to racial considerations). Santos v. Frederick County Board of Commissioners, No. L-09-2978 (D. Md. Feb. 7, 2012). On an obviously smaller scale, the case is somewhat of a preview of some of the issues that will be addressed by the Supreme Court when the Court examines an Arizona law that requires police to determine the immigration status of any person they detain who they believe to be in the country illegally.

Roxana Santos, the Plaintiff, was taking a break behind her place of employment when she was approached by two sheriff's deputies. Santos claimed that she never moved from where she was sitting, while the deputies claimed that they decided to approach her because she saw them, gathered her belongings quickly, and moved away. The deputies approached Santos, and asked her what she was doing, and if she had any identification. Santos provided the deputies with her full name, which was used by the deputies to run a warrant check. At that point, Santos produced a Salvadoran identification card. Shortly thereafter, the dispatch contacted the deputies, and advised that Santos was the subject of an Immigration & Customs Enforcement ("ICE") warrant for immediate deportation. While the warrant was being verified with ICE, Santos asked the deputies if she could leave, and they gestured that she was to remain seated. At that point, she got up to leave, but was handcuffed and placed under arrest.

Santos was not deported, and filed suit against the deputies and a variety of other defendants. With respect to the deputies, Santos claimed Unlawful Seizure, Unlawful Arrest, and Violation of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection (all under 42 U.S.C. § 1983), and conspiracy (under 42 U.S.C. § 1985). Judge Legg granted summary judgment on all counts.

With respect to the claim of unlawful seizure and arrest (under the Fourth Amendment), the court first noted that there are three types of police-citizen interactions, each of which require different levels of justification: arrests, which must be supported by probable cause; brief investigatory stops, which must be supported by reasonable articulable suspicion; and consensual encounters, which require no justification whatsoever. Santos claimed that she had been "seized" as soon as the deputies approached and began to question her; the deputies claimed she had not been seized until she was placed in cuffs. The court took the middle ground, finding that she was seized prior to being cuffed, but after she was initially approached, when the deputy gestured for her to remain sitting, as at that point any reasonable person in Santos' position would not feel free to terminate the encounter with the police.

Based on that determination, Santos was "seized" after the deputies had already been advised of the outstanding ICE warrant-- and as such, they possessed probable cause to detain her at that point. As such, there was no violation of Santos' Fourth Amendment rights.

With respect to Santos' claim that her 14th Amendment rights were violated (on the grounds that the deputies allegedly decided to question her based upon her Latina appearance), the court noted that the deputies had ample neutral evidence on which to seize Santos at the time of the seizure (the outstanding ICE warrant). Santos argued, however, that the Equal Protection Clause may be violated short of a seizure if police target an individual for questioning based on his or her ethnicity, and relied on the case of United States v. Avery, 137 F.3d 343 (6th Cir. 1997), in which the Sixth Circuit held that even a consensual encounter may violate the Equal Protection Clause when initiated solely based on racial considerations. Id. at 353. Judge Legg declined to adopt the Avery position on the issue, on the grounds that under existing law, either a Terry stop or an arrest must serve as the basis for a suit, and under the Avery approach nearly every encounter between the police and a citizen might be actionable based upon the subjective intent of the officer. (Judge Legg notes in his opinion that this focus on the officer's subjective intentions is an area the Supreme Court has attempted to avoid in the past.)

Regardless, the court found that even if Avery was the standard in the Fourth Circuit, Santos' claims would still fail, as Santos failed to offer sufficient evidence, whether direct, circumstantial, or statistical, from which a jury could conclude that the deputies were motivated solely by Santos' ethnicity.

As the claims asserting underlying discriminatory animus failed, the claim for conspiracy was dismissed as well.