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She May Be Lying, But It's Summary Judgment, Duh

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By William Peacock, Esq. on February 06, 2013 3:02 PM

We're all familiar with summary judgment at this point. If someone moves for summary judgment, the court is supposed to take the disputed facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. After doing so, if there still isn't enough alleged facts, the court can dismiss the claim.

Simple enough, right?

Miami Beach cops got a signed, written tip that drug dealing was occurring in an apartment occupied by Janet Feliciano, Edgardo Gonzaga, and their children. Officers acted on the tip and paid them a visit. They then forced entry and searched the apartment, including Feliciano's underwear drawer and kitchen pantry.

The search didn't lead to any convictions. In fact, it only led to a lawsuit. The officers moved for summary judgment on the Fourth Amendment claim, citing qualified immunity.

Feliciano claims that they forced their way in after she refused to allow them to enter. They then used so much force on her that she suffered a miscarriage. They claim that they smelled marijuana and that Gonzaga walked in carrying a joint. Exigent circumstances and the need to preserve evidence necessitated the immediate search. The district court found her testimony to be self-serving and the officers to be more credible.

Wait, what? This is summary judgment, not a bench trial. The Eleventh Circuit found that the district court erred by making such a credibility determination. Unless the incredible statements are contradicted by evidence in the record (such as a police cruiser's camera contradicting the alleged facts) or by factual impossibility, the court is supposed to take the non-moving party's allegations as facts for purposes of the summary judgment determination.

Plus, isn't everyone's testimony self-serving? That old common law prohibition on self-serving testimony died long ago. The officers' testimony was just as self-serving as Feliciano's was. They are trying to avoid being sued, after all.

The error made little difference here, however. Both the district court and the Eleventh Circuit found that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity, and therefore not entitled to summary judgment.

The district court took issue with the scope of the warrantless search - especially the intrusive digging through the lady's unmentionables and the kitchen cabinets. The Eleventh Circuit, taking the facts as alleged by Feliciano and Gonzaga, found that the officers didn't have a right to enter in the first place. Either way, the possible Fourth Amendment violation makes qualified immunity, and by extension - summary judgment, inappropriate.

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