A valid arrest requires probable cause. In Madero v. McGuiness, No. 23-2574, the Seventh Circuit affirmed that the inquiry as to whether there is probable cause for an arrest is based on the information reasonably available to the police at the time of the subject arrest. In Madero, the plaintiff brought a Section 1983 action against a police officer alleging a false arrest violating the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The arrest stemmed from an alleged altercation following a hit-and-run. Upon arrival at the scene, the defendant officer was provided with information from three witnesses that the plaintiff had been guilty of a hit-and-run and that he had instigated a physical altercation after having been tracked down by alleged witnesses to the hit-and-run. The only witness information denying this account was from the plaintiff himself. Given that three witnesses had provided the defendant officer with the same information, i.e. that the plaintiff had been the perpetrator of the hit-and-run and that he had been involved in a physical altercation after having been tracked down, the plaintiff was arrested for aggravated battery and was issued four traffic citations related to the hit-and-run. Subsequently, two of the witnesses called the police to modify their original statements. They indicated that they were no longer sure that the plaintiff’s vehicle was involved in the hit-and-run. Moreover, an accident investigator subsequently opined that there was no evidence on the plaintiff’s vehicle to suggest that he had been involved in a front-end collision.

The appellate court was unconvinced by the plaintiff’s arguments and held that there was probable cause for the arrest. In so holding, the court noted that the inquiry into probable cause is limited to what the officer knew at the time of the arrest. The court noted that in the instant case, it was the word of three witnesses against one. Moreover, the court noted that the defendant officer’s failure to note the lack of front-end damage to the plaintiff’s car did not dispel probable cause. Per the court, an officer is not required to search vigorously for exculpatory evidence, but at the same time, may not ignore conclusively established exculpatory evidence. In the instant matter, the court noted that the defendant officer was not “obliged, in the face of the eyewitness testimony before him and the evidence of a bleeding victim, to conduct a crash investigation in the middle of a snowstorm in the early hour of the morning.” As such, the exculpatory evidence, which was later revealed through a detailed examination of the vehicles was not obviously available to him.

Local public entities and local law enforcement should be mindful of documenting the information that is available at the time of an investigation and subsequent arrest. Moreover, while police are not required to undertake an exhaustive investigation for exculpatory evidence at the scene, they should be sure to note what evidence is obviously available and assess whether it adds to or detracts from information provided by witnesses.

For more information about this article, contact Tressler attorney Carter Frambes at cframbes@tresslerllp.com.