Section 1983 – independent intermediary rule

Section 1983 and malicious prosecution

False arrest and the independent intermediary rule

In Buehler v. City of Austin, Texas, 824 F.3d 548 (5th Cir. 2016), the Fifth Circuit again applied its independent intermediary rule to a false arrest claim.

The facts in Buehler are fairly simple. Officers of the Austin Police Department arrested Buehler on three occasions for interfering with police duties while he filmed APD interactions with other citizens. State magistrates and a grand jury found probable cause for each arrest.

Nevertheless, Buehler filed a Section 1983 claim alleging violations of certain constitutional rights. At its core, Buehler’s  claim was for false arrest.

The district court applied the independent intermediary rule and dismissed Buehler’s suit.

As noted, with respect to each time Buehler was arrested, a state judge and a grand jury found probable cause to support the arrest.

Under established Fifth Circuit law, the independent intermediary rule becomes relevant when a plaintiff’s claims depend on a lack of probable cause to arrest him.

The rule states that even if an officer has made a false arrest and violated the arrestee’s Fourth Amendment rights, the officer will not be liable if the facts supporting the arrest are put before an impartial intermediary (such as a magistrate or a grand jury) and the intermediary finds probable cause.

In such an event, it is said that the intermediary’s “independent” decision “breaks the causal chain” and insulates the officer from liability.

Based upon that rule, the district court dismissed Buehler’s suit.

The Fifth Circuit affirms.

Initially, Buehler asked the Fifth Circuit to overrule its prior case law on the independent intermediary rule. The Court declined to do so.

The Court did note that the chain of causation between the officer’s conduct and the unlawful arrest “is broken only where all the facts are presented to the grand jury, or other independent intermediary, and where the malicious motive of the law enforcement officials does not lead them to withhold any relevant information from the independent intermediary.”

Buehler argued that this exception applied. The Fifth Circuit, however, found no evidence to support that contention.

Should the independent intermediary rule be overturned?

In its opinion, the Fifth Circuit noted that decisions of other Circuit Courts were “in varying degrees of tension with our independent intermediary doctrine.”

In addition, Buehler’s counsel applied to the United States Supreme Court for a Writ of Certiorari. Although it was denied, some good arguments were advanced. You can read them here.

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