Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Darryl Burton v. St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners [i]

Opinion handed down September 24, 2013

In March, 1985, Darryl Burton was convicted for the murder of Donald Ball and sentenced to 75 years in prison.Twenty-four years later, a Missouri trial court found that Burton’s trial had been fundamentally unfair and ordered his release. Following his release, Burton brought this action against several police officers involved in his arrest and conviction and the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners. Burton claimed that the officers had violated his Sixth Amendment right to fair trial, Fourteenth Amendment right to substantive due process, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He alleged that the officers had recklessly or intentionally manipulated exculpatory evidence, used impermissibly suggestive identification procedures, conspired to deprive him of his constitutional rights, and brought his claim against the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners based on an allegation that these violations were due to improper customs and policies of the board. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants based on qualified immunity, finding that Burton had created no genuine issues of material fact regarding his claims. The Eighth Circuit, reviewing the decision de novo, affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment. This outcome is consistent with the case law requiring evidence of bad faith in order to impose liability on law enforcement officers.

                 I.            Facts & District Court Holding

On June 4, 1984, a gunman shot and killed Donald Ball at an Amoco service station in St. Louis, Missouri.[ii] Carolyn Lindsey, Stacy Lindsey, and Joan Williams allegedly saw the shooter and were interviewed by Detective Donald Cummings.[iii] Officer Thomas Wilder also interviewed a man, Samuel Coleman, who did not witness the shooting but was present at the scene.[iv]  Detective Stephen Hobbs took over the investigation the next day, focusing on Darryl Burton as a suspect.[v] Burton was convicted of murder and armed criminal action in March 1985 and sentenced to 75 years’ imprisonment.[vi] The case against Burton was substantially based on eyewitness testimony from Claudex Simmons and Eddie Walker identifying Burton as the gunman.[vii] The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed both Burton’s conviction and the trial court’s denial of post-conviction relief.[viii]

Five months after Burton’s conviction, Simmons signed an affidavit stating that he “submitted perjured testimony” to gain immunity from the Ball’s murder and that he did not witness Burton murder Ball.[ix] Although Walker died in 1996, his friend Daniel Pennington stated that he had been drinking with Walker during the time of Ball’s murder, and that it would have been physically impossible for Walker to see the area of the shooting from where they were standing.[x]  Others also claimed that Walker was a notorious liar.[xi]

After an unsuccessful action for federal habeas relief, Burton filed a state habeas petition.[xii] The Missouri trial court found that Burton’s trial had been fundamentally unfair and ordered his release from prison, 24 years after he had been incarcerated.[xiii]

Following his release, Burton filed suit in the district court against Detective Hobbs, Detective Cummings, Officer Wilder, Detective Daniel Nichols, Officer Christopher Gunter, and the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners.[xiv]Burton claimed that the defendants withheld exculpatory material, conducted suggestive identification procedures, and fabricated evidence in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[xv] The defendants claimed the defense of qualified immunity and moved for summary judgment.[xvi] The district court granted summary judgment on the § 1983 claims.[xvii]

                                                            II.            Legal Background

A. Manipulation of Evidence

Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, persons acting under color of law who deprive an individual of “any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress . . ..”[xviii] This provision allows persons who are denied rights under federal law to bring an action for damages.[xix] Qualified immunity shields a government official from personal liability in a § 1983 action unless the official’s conduct violates a clearly established constitutional or statutory right of which a reasonable person would have known.[xx] The two-step inquiry for evaluating a qualified immunity claim is (1) whether the facts shown by the plaintiff make out a violation of a constitutional or statutory right, and (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the defendant’s alleged misconduct.[xxi] If the answer to both of these questions is yes, the official is not entitled to qualified immunity; otherwise, qualified immunity will protect him from liability.[xxii]

A plaintiff’s Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claim is derived from his liberty interest in a fair criminal proceeding.[xxiii] To establish a constitutional violation based on an inadequate investigation, the plaintiff must show that the law enforcement official’s failure to investigate was intentional or reckless, “thereby shocking the conscience.”[xxiv]Coercing or threatening the defendant, purposefully ignoring evidence suggesting the defendant’s innocence and systematic pressure to implicate the defendant in the face of contrary evidence have each been considered by the Eighth Circuit to be conduct shocking to the conscience.[xxv] However, mere failure to investigate or follow up on additional facts does not violate due process,[xxvi] nor does aggressive investigation of the crime or discounting pieces of evidence that do not fit with the evidence at the scene of the crime.[xxvii] Recklessness in this regard is subjective – it requires the official to disregard a risk of harm of which he is aware.[xxviii]

The Supreme Court of the United States has long recognized the absolute duty of prosecutors to disclose evidence material to the defendant’s guilt or punishment, irrespective of good faith or bad faith.[xxix] Later cases clarified that this duty applies to evidence a reasonable prosecutor would perceive at the time as being material and favorable to the defense.[xxx] However, the absolute duty does not extend to law enforcement, and in order to recover § 1983 damages the defendant must demonstrate that the law enforcement officer acted in bad faith with intent to deprive the defendant of a fair trial.[xxxi] 

B.  Suggestive Identification Procedures

An identification procedure violates the right to a fair trial only if it is “both impermissibly suggestive and unreliable.”[xxxii] In assessing the reliability of a lineup, courts examine the totality of the circumstances, including the opportunity of the witness to view the criminal at the time of the crime, the witness’ degree of attention, the accuracy of this prior description of the criminal, the level of certainty demonstrated at the confrontation, and the time between the crime and the confrontation.[xxxiii] If the circumstances create a very substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification, the identification is unreliable.[xxxiv] The Eighth Circuit has held that differences in appearance, including differences in the existence of facial hair among the photographs, were not impermissibly suggestive because none of the differences in appearance tended to isolate the defendant.[xxxv]

C.  Conspiracy

A conspiracy claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 requires showing that (1) the defendant conspired with others to deprive him of constitutional rights, (2) at least one of the co-defendants engaged in an act in furtherance of the conspiracy, (3) that the act injured the plaintiff, and (4) that the plaintiff was deprived of a constitutional right or privilege.[xxxvi] The plaintiff needs to show at least that the defendants reached an agreement to deprive him of constitutional rights.[xxxvii]

                                                           III.       Instant Decision

The Eighth Circuit ultimately found no genuine issue of material fact and affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment.[xxxviii] The court reviewed the summary judgment de novo, requiring the defendants asserting immunity to establish the relevant predicate facts and giving the plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences.[xxxix] 

The court first addressed Burton’s claim that the defendants recklessly or intentionally manipulated exculpatory evidence in violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial, his Fourteenth Amendment right to substantive due process, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[xl] Burton asserted that by failing to include the statements of witnesses Coleman and Williams in the police report, the defendants improperly withheld these statements.[xli] He further claimed that the defendants recklessly or intentionally manipulated the testimony of key witnesses Walker and Simmons and that Detective Hobbs, acting in bad faith, exclusively pursued Burton as a suspect.[xlii] 

The court determined that Coleman’s testimony was not material to the issue of Burton’s guilt or innocence, and so did not support Burton’s claim that the defendants withheld exculpatory evidence.[xliii] Coleman’s witness statement was that the man he saw at the scene was not Burton; he did not know whether the man he saw was the shooter, and so was unable to say that Burton was not the shooter.[xliv] The court refused to “draw inference upon inference in order to conclude there might be a material fact issue lurking somewhere.”[xlv]

Burton alleged that Williams had told Detective Cummings that the shooter was an African American with light skin, and that this statement was exculpatory because Burton has a dark complexion.[xlvi] Williams signed an affidavit in 2004 claiming that, when she testified at trial, she knew that Burton was not the shooter but was never asked directly whether he was the assailant, and so did not mention it.[xlvii] Even assuming Williams did tell police that the shooter had a light complexion, the court noted that eyewitness testimony from Stacy Lindsey that the shooter had “medium skin” was included in the police report.[xlviii] The court declined to infer intent to frame Burton from the inclusion of Lindsey’s description and non-inclusion of Williams’ description in the police report.[xlix] The court also explained that the defendants could not have withheld Williams’ statement that the police had the wrong man because it was not made until the day she was called to testify at Burton’s trial.[l]

Burton also relied on an affidavit of Jim McCloskey from October 2011, in which McCloskey related an interview he conducted with Detective Hobbs over ten years prior.[li]According to McCloskey, Eddie Walker told a sergeant that he had seen Burton shoot Ball, and this sergeant relayed this information to Detective Hobbs.[lii] Hobbs showed Walker a photo array and Walker identified Burton’s photograph as that of the shooter; he also stated that he had known Burton for 10 years.[liii] However, there was no evidence that Hobbs knew this testimony to be false, so it did not create an issue of material fact regarding whether defendants manipulated Walker’s testimony.[liv] Further, the court found no evidence to support Burton’s claim that Hobbs had coached Simmons to change his story and identify Burton as the shooter.[lv]

As to Burton’s assertion that Detective Hobbs acted in bad faith by investigating him exclusively, even though another man was the more likely suspect, the court found that Burton had produced no evidence showing that Hobbs had purposefully ignored contrary evidence, recklessly or intentionally withheld evidence, or faced pressure to unduly strengthen the case against him.[lvi] Even if Hobbs were negligent in failing to follow through on investigating other possible leads, the court determined that Burton had not shown a genuine issue of material fact that the investigation violated either Burton’s Sixth Amendment right to fair trial or his Fourteenth Amendment right to substantive due process.[lvii] Because there were no genuine issues of material fact regarding these claims, the Eighth Circuit determined that the district court did not err in granting summary judgment to the defendants on claims of manipulation of the investigation or evidence in violation of Burton’s constitutional rights.[lviii]

Burton also alleged constitutional violations based on impermissibly suggestive and unreliable identification procedures with witnesses Walker and Simmons.[lix] The court found that the photograph arrays presented to Walker and Simmons did not create a substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification, and so were not impermissibly suggestive and unreliable.[lx] 

The court also found no evidence to support Burton’s claim that the defendants conspired to frame him for Ball’s murder or otherwise deprive him of his constitutional rights.[lxi] The court determined that, although Burton may have demonstrated that the defendants mistakenly believed him to be the murderer, he had not established a genuine issue of material fact as to whether he was deprived of a fair trial.[lxii] Finally, finding none of the individual defendants liable on the underlying substantive claims, the court dismissed Burton’s claim against the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners and affirmed the judgment of the district court.[lxiii]

                                                               IV.       Comment

The Eighth Circuit’s denial of recovery to Burton at the summary judgment stage may seem harsh at first, but this outcome is consistent with case law. In order to demonstrate liability of a police officer under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a criminal defendant is required to make showings of egregious conduct that shocks the conscience. In this case, Burton simply did not carry his burden. Although he may have been able to demonstrate negligence, this is not enough to overcome the officers’ qualified immunity. Given Burton’s lack of evidence that the defendants acted with intent or even reckless disregard for his constitutional rights, the district court properly granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

- Shelly Rosenfelder

[i] Darryl Burton v. St. Louis Bd. of Police Comm’rs, No. 12-2524, slip op. at *1 (8th Cir. 2013).
[ii] Id. at *1
[iii] Id.
[iv] Id.
[v] Id.
[vi] Id. at *1-2.
[vii] Id. at *2.
[viii] Id.
[ix] Id.
[x] Id.
[xi] Id.
[xii] Id. at *3.
[xiii] Id. at *4 (citing Burton v. Dormire, No. 06AC-CC0032 (Mo. Cir. Ct. Aug. 18, 2008)).
[xiv] Id.
[xv] Id.  Burton also alleged state law claims of malicious prosecution and infliction of emotional distress, but the district court dismissed these claims and Burton did not raise the issues on appeal.  Id. at *5, n.2.
[xvi] Id. at *4.
[xvii] Id
[xviii] 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
[xix] See Greenwood v. Peacock, 384 U.S. 808 (1966).
[xx] Winslow v. Smith, 696 F.3d 716, 730 (8th Cir. 2012) (citing Brown v. City of Golden Valley, 574 F.3d 491, 495 (8th Cir. 2009)).
[xxi] Id. at 731.
[xxii] Id.
[xxiii] Id.
[xxiv] Id. at 732 (citing Cooper v. Martin, 634 F.3d 477, 481 (8th Cir. 2011)).
[xxv] Id.
[xxvi] Id.
[xxvii] Id. at 734.
[xxix] Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963).
[xxx] Villasana v. Wilhoit, 368 F.3d 976, 979 (8th Cir. 2004).
[xxxi] Id. at 980; see also White v. McKinley, 519 F.3d 806, 814 (8th Cir. 2007).     
[xxxii] Briscoe v. County of St. Louis, 609 F.3d 1004, 1012 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting Pace v. City of Des Moines, 201 F.3d 1050, 1055 (8th Cir. 2000)) (emphasis in original).
[xxxiii] Id. (quoting Manson v. Brathwaite, 432 U.S. 98, 114 (1977)).
[xxxiv] Id.
[xxxv] U.S. v. Granados, 596 F.3d 970, 974 (8th Cir. 2010).
[xxxvi] White v. McKinley, 519 F.3d 806, 814 (8th Cir. 2007).
[xxxvii] Id. at 816.
[xxxviii] Id. at *20.
[xxxix] Id. at *5-6.
[xl] Id. at *6.
[xli] Id.
[xlii] Id. at *7.
[xliii] Id. at *8-9.
[xliv] Id.
[xlv] Id. at *9.
[xlvi] Id.
[xlvii] Id. at *10.
[xlviii] Id. at *11.
[xlix] Id.
[l] Id.
[li] Id.
[lii] Id. at *12.
[liii] Id.
[liv] Id.
[lv] Id. at *15.
[lvi] Id.
[lvii] Id.
[lviii] Id. at *16.
[lix] Id.
[lx] Id. at *17-18.
[lxi] Id. at *20.
[lxii] Id. at *20.
[lxiii] Id.