“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Sixth Circuit judge Eric Murphy tried to uphold a district court’s extension of qualified immunity to a sheriff’s deputy who had been sued for malicious prosecution, including keeping a man in jail for eleven months after the deputy received proof that he was innocent. The Sixth Circuit majority rejected that view, reversed the grant of qualified immunity, and sent the case back for trial in its decision in Jones v. Clark County.
In October 2013, Clark County Sheriff’s Deputy Lee Murray arrested Winchester, Kentucky resident David Jones based on evidence suggesting that child pornography had been downloaded at an IP address registered under Jones’s name. Murray and Captain Brian Caudill seized Jones’s cell phone, tablet, and computer and submitted them for forensic testing. Murray learned on January 11, 2014 that there was no file or other evidence on any device that supported his suspicion.
The record is unclear as to whether Murray notified prosecutors or Jones’s defense counsel of the forensic test results, but the prosecutors continued their proceedings and Jones remained in jail. Ten months later, Jones’s defense counsel ordered another test on devices, which confirmed that there was “no evidence of child pornography on either of the devices.” Jones was finally released from jail on December 15, 2014 – 11 months after the forensic test results exonerated him – and the case against him was dismissed several months later.
The following November, Jones sued Murray and others for damages for violating his constitutional rights, including for his continued detention in jail for 11 months after the test results came in. After discovery, the district court granted summary judgment against Jones, and ruled that Murray should get qualified immunity from the claim that he had improperly kept Jones in jail for almost a year.
By a 2-1 vote, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision on qualified immunity and on summary judgment for malicious prosecution, including the lengthy detention. The majority explained that a “reasonable jury could find that probable cause for Jones’ continued detention dissolved after the forensics test was completed, and that rather than tell the prosecutors about this critical development in the case, Murray withheld that information and thereby continued Jones’ detention.” That would make Murray liable under controlling precedent for malicious prosecution.
Trump judge Murphy dissented. He argued, as did the defendants, that Murray and other police could reasonably conclude that they had probable cause to continue to detain Jones even after the January test result, and thus should receive qualified immunity.
The majority rejected these claims. They pointed to the “genuine issues of material fact” on record as to whether probable cause for Jones’ detention “dissolved” once Murray received the January test results, which could in turn depend on what and when Murray told prosecutors. It “is not for this Court or the district court” to “weigh the evidence and determine the truth,” the majority made clear, but for a jury, both as to qualified immunity and liability for malicious prosecution.
As a result of the Sixth Circuit decision, Jones will have a chance to proceed with his charges and pursue justice for his wrongful extended detention. If it had been up to Murphy, however, Jones would have no such opportunity – and the officers in this case would not have been accountable for their misconduct.