Police Officers' Immunity - Ex Parte Harris


Ex parte Harris, [Ms. 1141345, 1141385, July 29, 2016] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2016). This opinion revisits the standards for State-agent immunity set forth in Ex parte Cranman, 792 So. 2d 392 (Ala. 2000) (plurality opinion), Ex parte Butts, 775 So. 2d 173 (Ala. 2000), and Hollis v. City of Brighton, 950 So. 2d 300 (Ala. 2006).

The Court notes that an Alabama town's police chief qualifies as a law-enforcement officer for purposes of § 6-5-338(a), Ala. Code 1975 and Ex parte Cranman, as modified by Hollis. Ms. *14. To be immune under § 6-5-338(a), Cranman and Hollis, a police officer must, at the time of the complained-of-action, be "exercising judgment in the enforcement of the criminal laws of the State ... including ... arresting or attempting to arrest persons," or "serving as a peace officer under circumstances entitling such officer to immunity 'from tort liability arising out of his or her conduct and performance of any discretionary function within the line and scope of his or her law enforcement duties.'" Ms. *15 (underlined emphasis in original). "Generally, arresting a person is considered an exercise of a discretionary function entitling the arresting officer to State-agent immunity." Id., citing Swan v. City of Hueytown, 920 So. 2d 1075 (Ala. 2005).

In this case, the plaintiff alleged that the police chief was not engaged in a lawful arrest because the criminal conduct for which she was arrested was classified as a misdemeanor that the chief did not actually observe. Ms. *16. Distinguishing Telfare v. City of Huntsville, 841 So. 2d 1222 (Ala. 2002) (Ms. *16-22), the Court held the police chief was engaged in making a lawful arrest such that the burden then shifted to the plaintiff to identify one of the two categories of exceptions to State-agent immunity recognized in Cranman.

Plaintiff contended that the Cranman exception concerning when the State-agent "act[ed] willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, in bad faith, [or] beyond his or her authority" (Cranman, 792 So. 2d at 405) was applicable. Ms. *23. The plaintiff contended there was personal animus between herself and the police chief based on conflicting financial interests and family disagreements. Citing Borders v. City of Huntsville, 875 So. 2d 1168 (Ala. 2003) and Kingsland v. City of Miami, 382 F.3d 1220 (11th Cir. 2004), the Court concluded (Ms. *25-28) that the police chief had "arguable probable cause" to make the arrest such that the Court could not conclude he acted "willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, [or] in bad faith" "so as to remove him from the umbrella of State-agent immunity afforded him under Ex parte Cranman." Ms. *28. So long as the police chief had probable cause to make the arrest, his "subjective intent is immaterial." Id., quoting Carruth v. Barker, 454 So. 2d 539, 540 (Ala. 1984).

The opinion also rejects the plaintiff's claim of malicious prosecution against the police chief. The Court recites the elements of such a claim:

"'(1) that there was a judicial proceeding initiated by the present defendant; (2) that it was initiated without probable cause; (3) that it was initiated with malice on the part of the present defendant; (4) that that judicial proceeding was terminated in favor of the present plaintiff; and (5) that the present plaintiff suffered damage from the prosecution of that earlier action.'"

Ms. *29, citing Ex parte Tuscaloosa Cty., 796 So. 2d 1100, 1106 (Ala. 2000); Kmart Corp. v. Perdue, 708 So. 2d 106 (Ala. 1997). "A malicious-prosecution claim is disfavored in the law because "[p]ublic policy requires that all persons shall resort freely to the courts for redress of wrongs and to enforce their rights, and that this may be done without the peril of a suit for damages in the event of an unfavorable judgment by jury or judge." Ms. *29, quoting Moon v. Pillion, 2 So. 3d 842, 845 (Ala. 2008). Here, the police chief had probable cause to initiate a judicial proceeding against the plaintiff and the court concludes that he did so without malice. Ms. *31. Thus, the police chief is immune from suit on the malicious-prosecution claim under the doctrine of State-agent immunity set forth in Ex parte Cranman as well. Ms. *32.

Finally, the Court concludes that the town could not be held vicariously liable for the alleged intentional acts of its police chief pursuant to § 11-47-190, Ala. Code 1975. Ms. *33-34, citing Ex parte City of Tuskegee, 932 So. 2d 895 (Ala. 2005); Cremeens v. City of Montgomery, 779 So. 2d 1190 (Ala. 2000); and Town of Loxley v. Coleman, 720 So. 2d 907 (Ala. 1998).

Related Documents: Ex parte Harris

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