Qualified immunity protects Harnett deputy who aided car repossession

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  • A federal Appeals Court has determined that a Harnett County sheriff's deputy enjoyed qualified immunity for his role in a car repossession.
  • Leslie Atkinson sued deputy Brent Godfrey and Sheriff Wayne Coats after Godfrey ordered her to leave her car as it was being repossessed.
  • Appellate judges agreed that no previous court precedent placed Godfrey on notice that his conduct was unconstitutional.

A Harnett County sheriff’s deputy cannot face legal liability because of his role in a car repossession. A federal Appeals Court ruled Thursday that qualified immunity protected the deputy from the car owner’s lawsuit.

The decision reversed a ruling from US District Judge William Osteen. He would have allowed the case to proceed against the deputy.

The legal dispute stems from Carolina Repo’s efforts to repossess a 2003 Chevrolet Avalanche from Leslie Atkinson. Arriving at Atkinson’s Harnett County home, a company employee saw the vehicle parked by the back door. As he tried to attach the car to a tow truck, Atkinson “jumped into her vehicle and attempted to drive off,” according to the decision from the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

Atkinson remained in the car after a tow bar lifted the vehicle’s back tires. Atkinson and a Carolina Repo employee then argued about the repossession. The employee called the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office for help.

Deputy Brent Godfrey arrived at Atkinson’s home. He “saw Atkinson in the vehicle, the back end of which was still suspended in the air by the Carolina Repo truck’s tow bar. Godfrey ordered her out of the vehicle so that the Carolina Repo representative could repossess it. Because she was intimidated by Godfrey, Atkinson got out of the vehicle as requested,” according to the court opinion.

Atkinson sued both Godfrey and Sheriff Wayne Coats. She alleged violations of her Fourth, Fifth, and 14th Amendment rights. She accused Godfrey of “improperly facilitating Carolina Repo’s repossession.”

“Qualified immunity shields government officials from civil damages liability unless the official violated a statutory or constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct,” wrote Judge Marvin Quattlebaum, citing a 2012 court precedent.

Not only does a court need to determine that a constitutional violation occurred. When a public official claims qualified immunity, judges also must “ask whether the right at issue was ‘clearly established’ at the time of the events in question.”

“[F]or Atkinson’s right to be clearly established, there must be case law not just about the general principle that law enforcement officials violate the Fourth Amendment by actively participating in a wrongful repossession; the law must establish that conduct similar to Godfrey’s is unconstitutional,” Quattlebaum explained.

“[T]he right Atkinson asserts is too general to have clearly established that Godfrey’s conduct was unconstitutional at the time of the repossession,” the judge wrote. “Merely knowing that law enforcement officials can violate the Fourth Amendment by actively participating in a wrongful repossession would not put Godfrey on notice that his particular conduct was unconstitutional. To the contrary, it begs the critical question — what conduct crosses the line in a private repossession from peacekeeping to actively participating?”

The 4th Circuit panel rejected a series of court precedents Atkinson’s lawyers presented to counter Godfrey’s qualified immunity claim.

“[N]either the Supreme Court, our Court nor North Carolina’s high court has provided fair warning that conduct like Godfrey’s was unconstitutional,” Quattlebaum wrote. “Nor is there a consensus from other courts of appeals that would have provided fair warning to a reasonable officer standing in Godfrey’s shoes. Godfrey is, therefore, entitled to qualified immunity.”

Thursday’s decision didn’t end the case. Atkinson can continue to pursue her claims against Coats as the “final policy maker” in the sheriff’s office. Noting that the case’s “constitutional terrain” is “murky,” Quattlebaum explained that the 4th Circuit declined to take up issues beyond the qualified immunity dispute.

Judges Harvie Wilkinson and Allison Jones Rushing joined the majority opinion.

In a concurrence, Wilkinson addressed the link between qualified immunity and “municipal liability.” Municipal liability refers to the government’s legal responsibility for its employees’ actions.

“Municipal liability is not easily established,” he wrote. “Municipalities, of course, do not have qualified immunity. Yet the whole idea of fair notice that lies at the heart of qualified immunity for individuals need not be wholly abandoned when policymakers are concerned.”

“In other words, it is not immediately apparent why the municipal fisc should be burdened in the absence of any ascertainable federal standards by which municipal policies can be gauged,” Wilkinson explained. “While municipal bodies may have more time or legal advice at their disposal than individual officials do, they are also uniquely taxed with devising workable and even novel solutions to their own sets of pressing problems.”