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Sixth Circuit Rejects Qualified Immunity Claim in Malicious Prosecution Suit for Wrongful Arrest and Conviction Involving Multiple Lies by Police

by Dale Chappell

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the denial of summary judgment filed by Detroit police in a lawsuit alleging malicious prosecution and false arrest, after police lied in order to obtain a conviction. The Court’s decision allows the lawsuit to move forward in the district court. 

In 2014, a Detroit woman was approached by two men with guns in front of her house just before midnight. So, the woman pulled out her own gun and began firing. In the end, the woman and one of the men were shot, but both survived. At the exact time of the shooting, Derrick Bunkley was at his mother’s house playing video games and posting pictures on Facebook. Around 1:30 a.m., Bunkley got a call that his father had been shot, and he ran to the hospital to see him. 

At the same hospital, the injured woman described her attackers to police as young black males wearing dark clothing, one 5 feet, 7 inches and 200 pounds, the other 5 feet, 4 inches and medium build. She said the one she shot was dark-skinned and the larger of the two. 

Because Bunkley and his father arrived at the hospital at the same time, and because Bunkley was wearing dark clothing, Detroit police assumed without any investigation that the two were the woman’s attackers, and they arrested Bunkley. 

After Bunkley’s arrest, the woman was shown an array of photos. She rejected the photo of Bunkley’s father, saying that her attacker was younger. She did, however, point out Bunkley in the array as one of her attackers. Bunkley protested his arrest, even giving his Facebook login information to police to prove he was posting pictures to Facebook at the time of the shooting. Detroit police investigator Latonya Moses took Bunkley’s account information and obtained a warrant to search his account. 

Moses then met with a prosecutor, who charged Bunkley with attempted murder based on information Moses provided him. During that meeting, Moses falsely asserted that Bunkley and his father arrived at the hospital together (Bunkley walked, while his father arrived in an ambulance), his father had refused to turn over the bullets that wounded him (there were no bullets recovered), and that hospital security had detained Bunkley until police arrived (he was sitting in a waiting room without security around). Moses further neglected to tell the prosecutor that the woman had rejected Bunkley’s father from the photo array and, crucially, that Bunkley’s Facebook information gave him a solid alibi. 

At trial, Moses testified that there was no Facebook activity whatsoever on Bunkley’s phone and suggested that Bunkley’s mother had changed the Facebook timestamp on the pictures. The jury convicted Bunkley, and he was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison. In his postconviction petition, Bunkley provided forensic testing results that verified his Facebook pictures were posted at the exact time of the shooting. The court granted his petition, and the prosecutor dismissed all charges. By then, Bunkley had spent two years in prison. 

Bunkley then sued the city in federal court, alleging malicious prosecution and false arrest. When the city moved for summary judgment claiming qualified immunity, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan denied the city’s motion, concluding that Moses had influenced the prosecutor’s decision to pursue charges and that she was aware of the exculpatory evidence on Facebook and withheld that from the prosecutor. The court ruled that police therefore lacked probable cause for an arrest, and because they knew this, they did not have qualified immunity. The city appealed. 

On appeal, the city argued that the officers “were simply following orders” and that, because the woman identified Bunkley in the line-up, Moses and the officers had probable cause for arrest and therefore had qualified immunity. The Sixth Circuit disagreed. 

A party moving for summary judgment must show there is no “genuine issue of fact” that would require the case to go further. The court, viewing all facts and evidence in the light most favorable to the party not moving for summary judgment, must deny summary judgment if there remains a factual dispute that a jury should resolve. 

The Sixth Circuit noted that an appeal from the denial of qualified immunity is an interlocutory appeal, where the court may only review the legal aspect, and not the factual aspect, of the district court’s decision. In other words, a court of appeals may not weigh the facts, only the legal conclusions by the district court. 

On the city’s claim that the officers were simply following orders, the Court made clear that the rule is whether “reasonable officers” could conclude that they have probable cause for an arrest. “That did not happen here,” the Court stated. The officers merely assumed Bunkley and his father were involved in the shooting, without any investigation, including their supervisor who approved the arrest over the phone. Therefore, the Court concluded, they did not have qualified immunity. 

The city’s claim that Moses had probable cause to arrest Bunkley because the woman had identified him in the photo array also failed. The Court pointed out Moses’ many lies to the prosecutor in concluding that she had no right to qualified immunity. 

The Court also determined that the officers do not have qualified immunity because they had a duty to intervene in the illegal arrest but failed to do so. “Any of these officers had time to stop, intervene, and prevent this arrest,” the Court admonished. 

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the denial of summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings. See: Bunkley v. City of Detroit, 902 F.3d 552 (6th Cir. 2018). 

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