Brown v. Chapel Hill | Public Official Immunity for False Imprisonment

In Brown v. Chapel Hill the Court of Appeals (on 4/1/2014), in a 2-1 split decision, addressed whether a police officer's detention of a person was actionable against the police officer. The officer argued that he had public official immunity. The majority of the panel of the Court of Appeals agreed, but one judge dissented. This case might be appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

In this case, the facts were disputed by the parties. In essence, a police officer detained the defendant late at night on the street, shortly after the defendant closed his barber shop for the evening. The police officer thought that the plaintiff was another individual (for whom there were outstanding warrants), and that the plaintiff was trying to obscure his face from them. The police stopped him on the street. The plaintiff alleged that he was violently handcuffed. After the police determined that the plaintiff was not the person whom they thought he was, they let him go. There are many more facts pertaining to the detention which are not repeated here.

The majority of the panel concluded that the officer's actions were not corrupt or malicious, and that as a result he had immunity from suit. One judge dissented, raising several interesting issues. One issue presented in the case is whether the plaintiff was merely detained, or if he was arrested; the judges agree that there was sufficient evidence that he was arrested. The dissent found that there was evidence that the officer's actions were not reasonable, and were contrary to law. In particular, the officer did not explain the reason for mistaking the plaintiff for another person; even though photographs showed that they looked similar, the officer did not testify that this was the basis for his arrest. There was also some evidence of racial bias in the arrest, that the officer was sarcastic, and that the officer's version was inconsistent.

John Kirby has handled many cases involving public official immunity, and has extensively researched this area of law.

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