A recent opinion issued by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in the civil rights case, Anokwuru v. City of Hous., 990 F.3d 956 (5th Cir. 2021), reinforced that qualified immunity serves to protect police officers and other government officials who make mistakes while carrying out their official duties.
Anokwuru v. City of Hous., 990 F.3d 956 (5th Cir. 2021) – Background
Houston Police Department Officer M.R. Francis was investigating an alleged “gang rape” in which a woman claimed that she was assaulted by three African men. She identified two assailants by name: “Jay” and “CheChe.” Officer Francis interviewed “Jay,” who claimed that he had engaged in consensual sex with the woman and a man whose nickname was “Chidera.”
Officer Francis suspected that plaintiff Reginald Anokwuru, an African man whose nickname was “Chidera,” was the assailant who the victim identified as “CheChe.” Officer Francis interviewed Mr. Anokwuru, who denied knowing “Jay” or the other assailants.
Nonetheless, Houston Police Department decided to prosecute Mr. Anokwuru. A grand jury indicted him on one count of aggravated sexual assault of an adult and a warrant was issued. He was arrested, and a magistrate judge found probable cause for his arrest.
After the indictment, the Houston District Attorney showed the victim a photograph of Mr. Anokwuru. She “definitively” confirmed that he was not one of the assailants. Mr. Anokwuru was “promptly” released and the charges against him were dismissed.
Mr. Anokwuru filed a civil rights lawsuit against Officer Francis, the Houston Police Department, and the City of Houston under 42 U.S.C. 1983—the federal statute that enables civil rights lawsuits against state and local governments. He alleged (among other things) that the police violated his right to be free from false arrest and malicious prosecution, and that Officer Francis provided false information to the grand jury to obtain an indictment.
The federal district court dismissed Mr. Anokwuru’s claims on the basis that he failed to allege a civil rights violation that would pierce the government’s shield of qualified immunity.
Plaintiff’s Appeal and U.S. Fifth Circuit’s Opinion
Mr. Anokwuru appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of all of Mr. Anokwuru’s claims.
First, it held that Mr. Anokwuru credibly claimed that Officer Francis acted “deliberately or recklessly” when he told the grand jury that he (Mr. Anokwuru) was the perpetrator. Without such an allegation, Mr. Anokwuru did not have a valid claim.
Second, the Fifth Circuit examined whether Mr. Anokwuru set forth a valid claim for malicious prosecution—that is to say, that he was unfairly targeted for criminal prosecution despite the police department’s knowledge of his innocence. The Fifth Circuit held that there is no “freestanding right” under the U.S. Constitution to be free from criminal prosecution. Rather, an arrestee can only bring a claim for malicious prosecution by alleging that he was targeted for prosecution based on a status or right that is Constitutionally protected.
Here, Mr. Anokwuru made no such allegation. He did not allege that he was treated differently than other arrestees, or that Officer Francis acted with “discriminatory intent” towards him. Rather, he only alleged that Officer Francis had some “ill will” against him and that he was charged because of his “ethnic-sounding nickname.” These allegations were not sufficient to show that the police violated his right to Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Based on these grounds, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Mr. Anokwuru’s civil rights lawsuit. In doing so, it reinforced that qualified immunity serves to protect police officers and other government officials who make mistakes while carrying out their official duties. The Fifth Circuit found that it is not a civil rights violation to be mistakenly charged with a crime, even if done so by an officer who exhibits “ill will” towards the arrestee. Without a clear allegation of some other Constitutional violation, there is no Constitutional right to be free from malicious prosecution.