In Washington v. Durand, Case No. 20-12148 (Feb. 7, 2022) (William Pryor, Lagoa, Schlesinger (M.D. Fla.)), the Court, in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 case, addressed whether an officer must release a suspect detained pursuant to a valid arrest warrant when the officer learns of possibly exculpatory evidence.  

Here, during the investigation of the murder of an elderly woman, Vivianne Washington was arrested pursuant to a warrant based on a tip from a confidential informant that she was involved in the crime and a positive photograph identification by a perpetrator who had already confessed.  Shortly after Ms. Washington’s arrest, however, police officers brought her in front of the perpetrator, who said, “That’s not her.”  Officers did not immediately release Ms. Washington.  Instead, she was detained for an additional twenty hours, and only released when the perpetrator confessed that he had lied about Ms. Washington.

Ms. Washington argued that police officers had an affirmative duty to return to the magistrate to inform him that the perpetrator had failed to identify her in person, and that their failure to do so violated her right to be free from unreasonable seizures under the 4th and 14th Amendments because there was no longer probable cause to support her detention.  

The Court disagreed and upheld the district court’s grant of qualified immunity to the police officers involved for three reasons: (1) probable cause persisted throughout Ms. Washington’s detention; (2) police officers were entitled to rely on the facially valid and lawfully obtained warrant; and (3) police officers did not affirmatively act to continue the prosecution against Ms. Washington.  

In so holding, the Court clarified the probable cause standard in the context of arrests.  Relying on the Supreme Court’s opinion in District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S. Ct. 577 (2018), the Court explained that probable cause exists when the facts, considering the totality of the circumstances and viewed from the perspective of a reasonable officer, establish a probability or substantial chance of criminal activity.  The Court disclaimed reliance on an older standard that predated Wesby, which required “facts and circumstances within the officer’s knowledge, of which he or she has reasonably trustworthy information that would cause a prudent person to believe that the suspect has committed, is committing, or is about to commit an offense.”