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Circuit Court Affirms Immunity in False Arrest

By William Vogeler, Esq. on June 12, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Jan Eshow was driving his family along a Virginia road when police pulled him over for speeding.

Moments later, the police arrested Eshow on a warrant from a fraud case that had been filed against him. They handcuffed the man, placed him in the cop car and drove off while his family watched. It got even worse for his wife, Sadwa Safar.

The problem was, the fraud charges were not true. Safar and Eshow sued the officer and a prosecutor, but a federal appeals court said in Safar v. Tingle that they were immune from civil liability.

A Day at Costco

The problem started when Eshow and his wife went shopping at Costco in Pentagon City, Virginia. There was a mix-up on a returned item, and a Costco employee called police to report a fraud.

Officer Stephanie Rodriguez responded to the report, and obtained arrest warrants against the couple. The next day, however, Costco contacted Rodriguez and explained it was a mistake.

Rodriguez did nothing to correct the report, and Eshow was arrested during the traffic stop eight months later. His wife was arrested, strip searched, and jailed for three days based on the same warrant during a citizenship proceeding.

The couple sued for civil rights violations and negligence, but a federal judge threw out their claims based on a qualified immunity.

Qualified and Absolute Immunity

On appeal, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed as to the civil rights claims but reversed and remanded with instructions to dismiss the negligence claims without prejudice.

The appeals court said the officer did not have a duty to revoke the arrest warrants. "Given the absence of an established duty to act, we award qualified immunity to Rodriguez on the §1983 claims," the court said, adding that the prosecutor was absolutely immune.

However, the judges said, the plaintiffs may be able to press their negligence claims in state court.

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