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Can't Sue, Despite Being Arrested for Sharing a Name With a Fugitive

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By William Peacock, Esq. on November 08, 2013 3:28 PM

Ludicrosity. Sheer and utter ludicrosity.

Amanda Cruz fiddled with her seatbelt at a stoplight, placing the shoulder strap behind her body, and neglecting to return it before taking off. Trooper Andy Page, ever worrisome about drivers' safety, pulled her over for the seatbelt violation, and when he ran her information through the system, a warrant for Amanda Cruz appeared.

Alleged Criminal Cruz has tattoos, light red hair, is 5'1" and was born on November 18, 1979. Cruising Cruz, showed the officer her arms and legs to prove that she had no tattoos. She also has dark brown hair, is 4'8", and as noted on her driver's license, was born on February 7, 1978.

This is not the same person! (Duh.)

Bad Luck Continues at the Police Station

After she was booked at the police station, four or five officers stood, slack-jawed, around a computer, comparing the picture of Criminal Cruz to Cruising Cruz. The questioned her about her social security number, date of birth, tattoos, height, etc. They commented that the two did not appear to be the same person. (Again, duh.)

Nonetheless, she was put back in a holding cell, given her seatbelt ticket, and detained for the remainder of the night until her mother posted a $120 bond. What was the maximum punishment for the seatbelt violation, you ask? $15. And no jail time. (Cruz's ticket was later dismissed.)

Needless to say, Cruz sued, alleging a violation of her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. In a practical sense, she is correct. No reasonable officer would arrest someone, and hold them overnight, for having the same name, but not the same tattoos, hair, or height, as a wanted criminal. Even if they were correct in taking her in to the station, after giving her the seatbelt ticket, and realizing the mistaken identity, she should've been released.

And at the Eleventh Circuit

Legally, however, her bad luck continues. The lower courts granted qualified immunity. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed late last week, and unfortunately for Cruz, their opinion seems to be based on a sound interpretation of recent Supreme Court law.

Though the detention was subjectively due to the outstanding warrant, the true test, per Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, is whether the action was reasonable "whatever the subjective intent motivating the relevant officials" may have been.

Trooper Cruz and Officer Davidson had probable cause to believe that she violated the seatbelt law. And though that offense carries nothing more than the cost of a couple of burritos at Chipotle (ugh, inflation), our nation's high court held in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista that an officer didn't violate the Fourth Amendment for effecting an arrest over a seatbelt violation that carried only a $50 fine. Ditto for Virginia v. Moore, where an officer arrested someone for something that wasn't actually a crime under state law.

In other words, ludicrosity. SCOTUS-mandated ludicrosity.

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