NEW ORLEANS – An investigator who allegedly broke down the doors of a medical clinic during a search is protected under qualified immunity in a case filed by a doctor citing unlawful detention, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled.
Circuit Judge Gregg Costa authored the opinion issued April 12, with judges Jacques Wiener Jr. and Leslie Southwick concurring.
“We conclude that the doctor’s allegations establish a Fourth Amendment violation based on the intrusiveness of the detention, but that the sparse caselaw in this area had not clearly established that unlawfulness,” Costa wrote. “As a result, the investigator is entitled to qualified immunity.”
Physician and plaintiff Ikechukwu Hyginus Okorie claims he was detained in his Mississippi office for roughly four hours and an investigator pushed Okorie down and pulled out his gun several times. He eventually printed the records requested while the investigator allegedly still had a gun drawn. He was allowed to leave his office after the search was complete, the suit claims.
Okorie had been under investigation for allegedly overprescribing pain medications, including opioids. Before a hearing that would determine the status of Okorie’s license -- after it had been revoked and reinstated -- a state court judge gave the green light for an administrative inspection and provided a search warrant, the ruling states.
After the investigation, Okorie filed a Section 1983 lawsuit alleging violation of the Fourth Amendment. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi dismissed the claims against all 12 defendants, including the investigator. Okorie only appealed the claim against the investigator.
A central argument in the ruling was a decision made in 1981's Michigan v. Summers, which "allows law enforcement to detain the occupant of a residence where a criminal search warrant is being executed. Consistent with the touchstone of the Fourth Amendment, however, the scope of such detentions must be reasonable," the ruling states.
"We confront a question that courts have rarely had to address in the nearly four decades since Summers was decided: May the government detain the owner of a business that is being searched not because of suspected criminal activity but instead for possible civil violations?" the ruling states.
While Okorie said there was no reason to detain him in the first place, the appeals court explained that it's possible for law enforcement to detain an occupant during a criminal investigation seeking contraband. Okorie said his warrant was surrounding civil, not criminal, activity and looked for evidence, not contraband.
“Treating searches for evidence and contraband the same is consistent with the modern rejection of the ‘mere evidence’ rule that once pervaded Fourth Amendment doctrine,” Costa wrote. "And the governmental interests that justified Summers’ exception to the probable cause requirement — including officer safety and 'preventing flight in the event that incriminating evidence is found' are not necessarily greater in a search for contraband than in a search for evidence. We thus agree with the prevailing view that Summers applies when the warrant is seeking evidence."
Costa added that even if he were not detained, Okorie had "good reason" to stay at the office during the search "so he could assist with and observe what was occurring."
Still, the appeals court did not ignore the alleged nature of how Okorie was detained.
The ruling states there was not any proof that Okorie was actually a threat to officers on the scene. He has a non-violent background and was accused of a civil crime, not a criminal one. Still, the investigator allegedly drew his gun several times.
“By this point, concerns about safety did not justify such intrusive measures,” Costa wrote. “And with nine agents present in the office to execute the search, the need for such an intrusive detention was even lower.”
Still, the appeals court said the investigator is protected with quality immunity above all, which was the ultimate deciding factor in the case.