Liability Under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 for Involuntary Custody

Myers v. Patterson, 819 F.3d 625 (2d Cir. 2016)

Second Circuit finds that the district court record was insufficient to support a finding of qualified immunity for police officer responding to child protective services report who took a mother into custody based on finding of danger to self or others due to mental illness, and remands for further proceedings.

Background: A Child Protective Services caseworker, Jodi Weitzman, was assigned to investigate Julia Johnson after reports from her son’s school. Weitzman eventually summoned police to Johnson’s home, believing that she should be sent for a psychological evaluation. The only record of the arrest was Weitzman’s handwritten notes; the police officer did not take notes and did not testify. The notes described Johnson as annoyed and uncooperative, and her son, DJM, as fearful. The officer, Patterson, arrested Johnson and she was sent to a medical facility for evaluation. The district court granted Patterson qualified immunity under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 because Johnson did not put forth evidence that would suggest Patterson was not making a reasonable decision as a police officer when he detained her. The officer’s motion for summary judgment was granted.

Holding: A police officer must have probable cause to believe a person is at risk of harming himself or others in order to lawfully detain them. A police officer would have probable cause if other reasonable police officers would not disagree with his conduct or he was acting under the professional judgment of a licensed caseworker. The Second Circuit found that the record had insufficient detail to make a probable cause determination, one way or the other. The court vacated the district court’s assignment of qualified immunity and remanded the case to that court in order to further develop the record and reconsider the question of qualified immunity.

Notable Points:

Assessment for probable cause is anchored at time of custody: After Johnson was arrested, she was found to be a danger to herself and others, according to the psychological evaluation. Eventually, her parental rights were severed. Regardless of whether the subsequent facts make Patterson’s arrest seem more plausible, the court would only consider the facts at the time of the conduct.

Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 2