Warrantless interrogation suit goes back to trial

May 5, 2017

In the heat of a stressful situation such as a police standoff, police follow their instructions to secure the crime scene and prevent the destruction of evidence and preserve the crime scene for the investigators. When police secure an investigation scene one of the first things they do is identify and isolate witnesses. They keep eye witnesses separated to promote truthful statements and prevent people from coordinating narratives. In December 2013, in a standoff leading to a fatality, a witness was isolated in police custody, interrogated for five hours, without a warrant. This witness, an 18-year-old female, later sued the Texas Ranger for a variety of civil rights violations and won. The Ranger appealed the trial court’s ruling which was upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Unwarranted search and seizure, a Fourth Amendment civil rights violation

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects us from unreasonable search and seizure without due process of law. When law enforcement detains you in their custody without a warrant, arrest or suspicion of a crime there is a likely Fourth Amendment violation. A simple test to determine whether an individual is in a custodial detention is whether the individual is free to stand up and walk away. When someone’s Fourth Amendment civil rights are violated, their source of recourse is what is referred to as a Section 1983 civil rights lawsuit. To learn more, read our blog article, Constitutional Claims: Section 1983.

The five-hour detention of Erin Lincoln, witness and daughter, age 18[i]

Nearly four years ago in December of 2013, Mr. John Lincoln ran out of his bipolar disorder medication. After having dinner with his father, John grabbed his gun left his father’s house and headed to his mother’s house. John’s sister, concerned about the events, notified Colleyville Police. John’s mother was not home but his own 18-year-old daughter, Ms. Erin Lincoln was there.

When the SWAT team of officers from Colleyville and North Richland Hills arrived, they asked Erin if she was in any danger. She responded and said she was not in any danger, but that the police presence was upsetting her father who opened the door and shouted at police while holding his gun. Erin was standing behind him. The last time John opened the door, his daughter Erin was standing next to him when three officers opened fire and killed her father.

Erin collapsed. The officers used force to relocate her to the back seat of a police vehicle for two hours. Erin did not resist, cause any problem or fight, according to reports indicating she had just wanted to remain by her slain father who lost his life after a bad incident in connection with running out of his bipolar medication. The police drove Erin to the police station where Texas Ranger Clair Barnes interrogated the 18-year-old for five hours and forced her to write out a statement before being allowed to leave with her aunt, an Arlington Police Department officer who stated several times that these officers were acting outside of t heir authority by holding the girl as a witness against her will.

Erin Lincoln won in the trial court and the Fifth Circuit affirmed the ruling on Fourth Amendment violations

Where Erin Lincoln was detained in police custody and interrogated for five hours, without a warrant, and where she was not a suspect of any crime, merely a witness to the events, Texas Ranger Claire Barnes violated Erin’s civil rights, namely her Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful and unwarranted searches and seizures.

The Fifth Circuit concluded in Erin’s favor, stating that the law certainly allows law enforcement to seek the cooperation of members in the public in the investigation of a crime. However, absent special circumstances, the person may not be detained. The person may refuse to cooperate and be on their way. Any forcible detention of the witness person constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, and must satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s “reasonableness” requirement. “The detention of a witness that is indistinguishable from a custodial interrogation requires no less probable cause than a traditional arrest.[ii]

Following the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, the case will now proceed to trial in the trial court where the Defendant, Barnes filed a motion to dismiss, claiming as a law enforcement officer, she had qualified immunity. The trial court denied Barnes’ motion to dismiss and Barnes appealed that denial to the Fifth Circuit. A variety of constitutional claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 will next be litigated in the trial court.

For more information about Fourth Amendment violations and Section 1983 constitutional claims litigation, please contact The Michael Kim Law Firm, PLLC.

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[i] US Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, Lincoln v. Barnes, No 16-10327, opinion filed April 20, 2017.

[ii] See Lincoln v. Barnes Part IV Conclusion.