Mistake of Fact Is Insufficient for Qualified Immunity in an Operating While Intoxicated Arrest.

Marshall Dennehey

Akima v. Peca, 85 F.4th 416 (6th Cir. 2023)

The plaintiff, an Asian male in the U.S. on a visa, was pulled over for a broken headlight. The plaintiff attempted to exit the vehicle during the stop, allegedly a possible sign of intoxication. During the stop, the officer smelled vodka. Initial attempts at conversation were difficult due to the language barrier, and the officer expressed frustration during the encounter. The plaintiff was removed from the vehicle to perform sobriety tests.

The officer testified that a horizontal gaze nystagmus test indicated that the plaintiff was intoxicated, but the results of the test were not clear on the officer’s body cam footage. In the walk-and-turn test, the plaintiff was seen swaying moderately and titling when he turned. In the one-legged-stand test, the plaintiff was relatively stable but fell sideways after 25 seconds. The arresting officer did not ask about any medical conditions before conducting the test. The arresting officer misread the results of the breathalyzer and mistook a .02 for a .22, causing him to place the plaintiff under arrest for operating while intoxicated. The arresting officer took 30 minutes to complete the arrest paperwork and was heard radioing her fellow officers for instructions on how to process an operating while intoxicated arrest, stating that she “literally had no idea what (she) was doing.” The plaintiff was taken for a blood test at the hospital. The results were not received for a week, but demonstrated a .014 blood alcohol content.

The plaintiff’s visa was revoked as a result of the arrest. The plaintiff sued for false arrest, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The officer moved for judgment on the pleadings on the basis of qualified immunity. The motion for judgment on the pleadings was denied, and the officer appealed.

Despite alleging she was simply mistaken during the arrest and that a reasonable officer could have understood the plaintiff to have failed the field sobriety tests, the court found that “(i)n determining probable cause, only the accurate result—the result a reasonable officer would have observed—matters.” The subjective mistake made by the officer was found to be irrelevant. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of qualified immunity and allowed the case to move forward.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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