Court To Cop: You Took 80 Days Away From A Person's Life With A Baseless Warrant, So We're Taking Your Immunity

from the Munday-is-no-Joe-Friday dept

In 2009, April Yvette Smith was arrested on drug dealing charges and spent 80 days in jail. The charges were ultimately dropped by the district attorney, but by the time it happened, Smith had already lost her job. The same can’t be said for the officer who obtained her arrest warrant. His job was always secure. The only thing he’s lost — seven years after the fact — is his immunity from Smith’s civil rights lawsuit.

The chain of events leading to Smith’s wrongful arrest are as horrible as they are stupid. Somewhere between Barney Fife and the banal evil of law enforcement ineptitude lies Officer Jason Munday. It starts with a “wired” confidential informant and ends in an indifferent “investigation” that sounds as though Munday just got bored sitting around the office.

Here’s how it began, as detailed in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion [PDF]:

On March 10, 2009, officers Munday and McGinley conducted an undercover investigation using a confidential informant, Rufus Lynch Sr. The officers searched Lynch, wired him with audio and video recorders, and gave him sixty dollars. Lynch then went to 728 East Pine Street, where he purchased crack cocaine from two individuals. After the transaction, Lynch returned to the officers. He told the officers that he purchased drugs from April Smith, a black female. The detective’s notes identify April Smith as such: “B/F April Smith,” and “April B/F skinny $20 1 rock in plastic, Smith 40s.”

So far, so good… except for the many small details that collaborated to ensure the recording was useless.

Because the audio recorder had no batteries, it failed to record the transaction. And because the camera wired to Lynch pointed in the wrong direction, the video recording did not capture the drug sale. The video instead shows an unidentified black woman sitting on a front porch, and two other individuals standing on the porch.

Sending out someone to collect recordings and ending up with something approaching hearsay isn’t the best way to begin an investigation. But that didn’t stop Munday from moving slowly and fitfully towards an arrest he had no probable cause to make.

At some point during the next nine months, Munday scanned police databases for residents of Lincoln County named April Smith with criminal records. He then stumbled upon April Yvette Smith, a black woman who lived in Lincoln County and had been convicted of selling crack cocaine in 1993, 1997, and 2005. His search also revealed at least two other April Smiths with criminal records. He had no indication that the woman who sold crack cocaine to Lynch in March 2009 had a criminal record, or was even a Lincoln County resident. And the record reflects no further attempt by Munday to investigate Smith or connect her to the crime.

Having wrapped up his ultra-cursory investigation, Munday applied for an arrest warrant, snagging one of the April Smiths he had come across during his desktop browsing — nine months later and eleven miles away from the site of the drug sale that wasn’t properly recorded.

April Smith spent the next 80 days in jail, facing potential prosecution. Munday presumably went back to half-assing his way through his law enforcement career.

The lower court granted Munday immunity, stating that probable cause existed to arrest pretty much any April Smith who fit at least part of the description. The Appeals Court disagrees.

[E]ven ignoring Smith’s weight, a criminal history, common race, common gender, and unfortunately common name is not enough to establish probable cause.

[…]

When applying for an arrest warrant, Munday simply did not have enough information for any reasonable or prudent person to believe there was probable cause. He lacked any information connecting Smith’s conduct to the contours of the offense, and certainly lacked enough evidence to create any inference more than mere suspicion.

As the court points out, Munday did nothing that even approached the definition of “investigation.” All he did was browse a criminal record database and decide someone named April Smith was going to get a rap and a ride. For all the policework that went into this, Munday may as well have used a dartboard to generate his “probable cause.”

[T]o find the offender, Munday merely ran a broad search in the department’s database of individuals with criminal histories, looking for a woman of the same name. And when he found multiple individuals, at least two of whom were black women named April Smith weighing between 130 and 140 pounds, he chose one for no immediately apparent reason.

[…]

There is no evidence that Munday attempted to identify Smith as the black woman in the video footage. There is no evidence that the officers showed Lynch a photo of Smith to establish the identification. There is no evidence that the officers investigated Smith herself, or found any indication that Smith frequented the site of the drug sale that day, that month, or at all. Indeed, there is no explanation whatsoever for the nine-month delay between Lynch saying a black woman named April Smith sold crack cocaine to him and the issuance of an arrest warrant for April Yvette Smith.

Citing a previous case handled by this circuit, the Appeals Court calls Officer Munday out for his abject failure to perform any investigative work whatsoever before moving forward with an arrest.

“Horner was ‘not required to exhaust every potentially exculpatory lead or resolve every doubt’” to show probable cause. Id. at 190 (quoting Miller v. Prince George’s County, 475 F.3d 621, 630 (4th Cir. 2007)). But he still had to conduct some level of investigation. And he did. Munday conducted none.

And so, the court concludes Munday can’t have the immunity granted to him by the lower court. The warrant he applied for was so lacking in probable cause, the court cannot possibly extend him this legal nicety.

[E]ven a glance shows that Munday was unreasonable if he believed he had probable cause. Smith did have a criminal history for possessing and selling cocaine. But as discussed above, Munday had no evidence about her conduct whatsoever, let alone any evidence connecting her to the crime in question. It would be unreasonable for any officer to view Munday’s dearth of evidence as sufficient to establish probable cause. As a result, qualified immunity does not apply.

Because Munday failed to do his job, April Smith (allegedly) lost hers. Smith has already faced the consequences of Officer Munday’s actions. Now, it’s Munday’s turn.

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Comments on “Court To Cop: You Took 80 Days Away From A Person's Life With A Baseless Warrant, So We're Taking Your Immunity”

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46 Comments
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The tech angle would be that the recording devices used didn’t work at capturing the evidence they were intended to, but this didn’t deter someone from abusing what little information they had captured. Thus proving that even when the tech isn’t working, it can be abused at a very real cost for innocent people.

The moron angle is the obsessive small minded breed who insist on whining that this blog isn’t writing about what they want it to write about, even when it’s a subject that’s been covered here extensively for years.

You’re welcome.

Cowardly Lion says:

Re: Re: More tech, and IT

I’d also add that criminal records databases need strict limits on and definitions regarding their use, and those that have access to them should be doing so within the tightest of controls.

April Yvette smith, who we’re told has, allegedly, a criminal history, may very well have reformed and moved on to a far more fruitful life.

This is indeed a sad story. At the minimum, Deputy Anus needs to have his privileges revoked.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“The moron angle is the obsessive small minded breed who insist on whining that this blog isn’t writing about what they want it to write about, even when it’s a subject that’s been covered here extensively for years.”

I was with you all the way up to the smug, snarky, personal attack. He’s an asshat troll, don’t stoop to his level. Just hit the button and move on, your better than that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Do you run this blog?

No?

Then you have no standing to tell the people who do what they can or cannot write about.

Techdirt has published numerous stories about the overreach of police, often in connection to the misuse of technology. That this case involves the misuse of technology makes it related to other such stories. If you have a problem with Techdirt pointing out the flaws and foibles of “the boys in blue”, that is your problem.

And it is one easily fixed by you never coming here again.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

And the Judge?

What about the judge who signed the warrant that was so lacking in probable cause? Does the Fourth Circuit have any authority to remove their qualified immunity? Of course not. How about a slap on the wrist? This article, and another I read about the same case do not mention any. Should not rubber stamping by deaf and blind judges get some action?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: And the Judge?

Some judges are elected. This is sometimes true at both the local magistrate and state levels. In theory, their conduct is subject to constituent review. However, given the state of criminal justice, it’s the “tough on crime” people that get elected. Their top priority is filling jail cells and death row, not upholding the ideals of the Constitution or basic human dignity.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: And the Judge?

You know, I wonder if that’s just a matter of messaging. If a judge campaigned with messaging that better reflects the current legal system, he might get votes.

Something like:

You are Fucked Hard once the law puts its eye on you. Think innocence or ironclad evidence is going to vindicate you? Think again…unless I happen to be your judge. Vote for me and but Justice back in the Justice System.

I’d think enough people have been ground through the system that almost everyone knows someone who’s been screwed over by illegal searches, impacted public defenders or false testimony by the DoJ.

Certainly the incidents of failure to indict in cases of police brutality and overreach continue to increase and reach ears of the public.

Of course, according to Donald Trump, the police are paragons of virtue and all the United States is worse than Gotham. But I think he just secretly wishes he was Batman.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Turnabout is fair play

Given the result of the ‘investigation’ I’d say that the absolute minimum that Munday should face as a penalty is 80 days in jail. Add on extra fines if the court feels that they’re appropriate, but at the very least the cop should face what they imposed on someone else due to their gross negligence/indifference.

peter says:

Who signed the warrant

“[E]ven a glance shows that Munday was unreasonable if he believed he had probable cause.”

And yet a Judge, whose specific responsibility is to scrutinise the application for things like probable cause, didnt glance at it.

The desk officer/supervisor where she was booked didnt glance at it.

The Judge who arraigned her for the 90 days didnt glance at it.

And I have probably missed others who should have glanced at it but didnt.

Officer Munday did a half-assed job, but there is a whole array of people whose job is to ensure that an officers half assed job doesnt result in this travesty, and each of whom did their own half-assed job.

Each and every one of them should be co-defendents in the court with him.

David says:

And you wonder about U.S. criminality

Part of the reason the U.S. has some of the highest crime rates in civilized countries is their zero-tolerance hard-against-crime bullshit.

Once you ever got tagged for any crime, there is no longer any manner in which you are going to be able to lead a normal life. So why even try?

Making crime a one-way street without return, in contrast to what Americans want to believe, increases the amount of criminals rather than the other way round.

I mean, look at this: this woman has a criminal record, so she is eligible for arrest without cause. She’ll never be able to lead a normal life ever again, even if she wanted to. She will never ever be even close to be able to live a life like people without a criminal record.

So why try? The U.S. needs a better answer to that question than it has now.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: And you wonder about U.S. criminality

Root out authoritarian attitudes and treat crime as a social problem. while dangerous and violent individuals should certainly be locked up to protect the public, petty criminals can easily be given non-custodial penalties that allow them to continue to work, etc., and contribute to taxes, etc.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Who would sign an arrest warrant under these circumstances?

The whole point of having to get a warrant from a judge is so that a fucking judge had to review the circumstances of the case to assure it is worthy of an arrest.

Munday may be a two-bit goon unworthy of his badge, but someone who is supposed to be of letters and reason signed him off.

Two heads better roll on this one.

OneofthoseotherGuys says:

What *should* happen in this instance..

Munday, prison sentence of a minimum of 800 days (10 x what April was was confined for) as he was a cop and definitely knew better, but decided NOT to follow the law or even local policy or procedures.

All income Munday earned during that 8 months given to April Smith, plus loan-shark level interest compounded by the minute for that 8 months.

Munday’s entire retirement fund turned over to April Smith.

Munday’s job terminated and all details of this case and his incompetence on his permanent record so that he never gets another job even remotely linked to law enforcement.

No, we won’t be seeing ‘Jason Munday, Mall-Cop’, at a theater any time soon.

Anonymous Coward says:

usually better reporting

I read the whole article twice. Never once did you share where this occurred. Like in city/state. ???

There are at least SEVEN Lincoln Counties in the USA.

Yes, I did finally find out where by following the link to the complaint. But you’re missing key info at the beginning of the article, Tim. I’ve gotten used to better from techdirt.

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