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Qualified Immunity for Illinois Police Officers

Cibulka v. City of Madison, No. 20-1658 (March 29, 2021) W.D. Wisc. Affirmed

In October 2015, Todd and Shelly Cibulka drove to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to visit their daughter Emily and enjoy festivities after a Badgers football game. Todd and Shelly spent several post-game hours heavily drinking at a bar. Upon setting out on her own to locate them after not answering their phones, Emily ultimately called the police after finding them inebriated and unable/unwilling to communicate. The police assistance concluded with Todd ending up in the county jail. Arresting officers were forced to restrain Todd, take him to the ground, and struggle throughout the encounter to gain compliance while he actively resisted. In July 2018, Todd and Shelly filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City of Madison, the individual officers, and other defendants that have since been dismissed. Todd and Shelly alleged that the officers falsely arrested Todd and used excessive force against him in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the officers on qualified immunity grounds. The Cibulka’s appealed the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.


The standard set by the Supreme Court and used by the 7th Circuit on appeal to analyze the District Court’s grant of summary judgment is that qualified immunity shields government officials from civil liability for conduct that “does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). The Court, in issuing its opinion, evaluated each claim and whether a clearly established constitutional right had been violated.


With regard to the allegation of false arrest, “[t]he existence of probable cause to arrest is an absolute defense to any § 1983 claim against a police officer for false arrest.” Abbott v. Sangamon County, 705 F.3d 706, 713– 14 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing Mustafa v. City of Chicago, 442 F.3d 544, 547 (7th Cir. 2006)). Police officers are given deference such that even if the belief that probable cause existed was a mistake, so long as the officer was being reasonable, the officer will still be entitled to qualified immunity. Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 555–58 (1967). Here, the court held that it “was eminently reasonable for the officers to believe there was probable cause to arrest Todd for disorderly conduct and for resisting an officer.” Therefore, the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on the claim of false arrest.


With respect to the claim of excessive force, “[t]o overcome qualified immunity in an excessive-force case, the plaintiff must either (1) “identif[y] a ‘closely analogous case that established a right to be free from the type of force the police officers used on him,’” or (2) show “that the force was so plainly excessive that, as an objective matter, the police officers would have been on notice that they were violating the Fourth Amendment.” Weinmann v. McClone, 787 F.3d 444, 450 (7th Cir. 2015) (quoting Findlay v. Lendermon, 722 F.3d 895, 899 (7th Cir. 2013)). Todd and Shelly were unable to point to any case that supported their allegation that the level of force exercised by the defendants was excessive because no such case exists. The Court held that qualified immunity was also appropriate with respect to the claim of excessive force.


In the end, the Court held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because at no point did they violate Todd Cibulka’s clearly established rights and affirmed the district court’s decision.


At Behr, McCarter & Potter, P.C. we have a 30 year history of defending governmental entities in all matters of litigation. Our attorneys are licensed in Missouri and Illinois and have represented municipalities in matters ranging from class-actions and wrongful death litigation to state and federal employment discrimination. Our firm employs a prior federal law enforcement officer, and we maintain a unique perspective, approach, and understanding of the issues facing law enforcement during pursuits, use-of-force incidents, and officer-involved shootings. To learn more or discuss how we can best represent you, please contact us.

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