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Second Circuit Rules Police Not Entitled to Qualified Immunity After Failing to Comply With Terms of Material Witness Warrant

by Kevin Bliss

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the detention of a prospective material witness for 18 hours in a holding cell instead of adhering to the terms of the material witness warrant violated plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights, and therefore the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity at the summary judgment stage.

Francis Longobardi, then assistant district attorney of Queens County, New York, applied to the county supreme court to issue a material witness warrant for Alexina Simon in connection with an insurance fraud case he was investigating. Justice Kenneth Holder issued the warrant directing, “ALEXINA SIMON to appear at the hearing at the Queens County Courthouse in the City of New York on August 11, 2018 at 10:00 in the forenoon….”

Detectives Allegre and Lee went to the Millennium Broadway Hotel to execute the warrant. Yet, instead of going to the hearing, Simon claimed they drove her to the precinct and interrogated her for 10 hours. After dinner, Simon was taken to the courthouse to meet with Longobardi. He immediately recognized that this was not the witness he needed; it was, in fact, Simon’s daughter, Alexandra, he wanted.

Simon was finally released with instructions to convince her daughter to come in with her and give testimony. On August 12, Simon claimed that Alegre and Lee returned to collect her, warning her that they still had her warrant. Simon came in without her daughter and was allegedly held another eight hours before finally being released.

Simon filed an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on March 27, 2009, for false arrest and imprisonment in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, citing qualified immunity, because any violation of Simon’s rights was not clearly established when they acted. Simon appealed.

The Second Circuit ruled that the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity based on the facts viewed in the light most favorable to Simon, as required at the summary judgment stage.

The Court explained that state executive officials “are entitled to qualified immunity under § 1983 unless (1) they violated a federal statutory or constitutional right, and (2) the unlawfulness of their conduct was ‘clearly established at the time.’” Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658 (2012). A right is clearly established when its “contours … are sufficiently clear” that every “reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731 (2011). The Court noted that a case directly on point is not required, but “existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” In determining whether an official is entitled to qualified immunity, the Second Circuit generally considers Supreme Court decisions, its own decisions, and those from other Circuit Courts. Terebersi v. Torreso, 764 F.3d 217 (2d Cir. 2014).  

The Court, viewing all material facts in dispute in the light most favorable to Simon, concluded that Alegre and Lee’s detention of Simon for 10 hours in violation of the material witness warrant violated the Fourth Amendment. The Court based its conclusion on two principles. First, a material witness seizure is subject to Fourth Amendment analysis, so it must be reasonable under the circumstances. Second, a person seized and detained as a material witness has the same Fourth Amendment protections afforded to criminal suspects. As with any type of seizure pursuant to a warrant, a material witness seizure must conform to the terms of the warrant.

According to the Second Circuit, the foregoing “principles yield the commonsense rule that police officers must abide by the limitations set forth on the face of a warrant they are executing…. A seizure that flouts the plain terms of its authorizing instrument is therefore unreasonable.” The police detectives failed to abide by the plain terms of the warrant, the Court stated. Instead of producing her for a hearing as directed in the warrant, they detained her for several hours over the course of two days.

The unlawfulness of their actions was clearly established at the time. New York statute requires a full-dress hearing before a person can be detained as a material witness, and a material witness warrant is for the express purpose of ensuring the prospective witness’ attendance at the hearing. N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law §§ 620.30, 620.50. Therefore, they violated Simon’s Fourth Amendment rights and are not entitled to qualified immunity at the summary judgment stage of the lawsuit.

The Court stressed that for purposes of this decision regarding the defendants’ motion for summary judgment it viewed all facts in the light most favorable to Simon. But at the actual litigation stage, the factfinder may resolve disputes of material fact in an entirely different manner. As such, the Court emphasized “that we do not determine as a matter of law that the defendants’ actions violated Simon’s clearly established Fourth Amendment rights.”

Accordingly, the Second Circuit vacated the judgment of the district court and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: Simon v. City of New York, 893 F.3d 83 (2d Cir. 2018). 

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