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Copeland v. Wicks

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, First Division

January 27, 2015

DEANNA COPELAND, Plaintiff/Appellant,
v.
LUCAS WICKS, Defendant/Respondent.

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lincoln County Honorable David H. Ash

LAWRENCE E. MOONEY, PRESIDING JUDGE

The plaintiff mother, Deanna Copeland, appeals the judgment entered by the Circuit Court of Lincoln County granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant, Detective Lucas Wicks. The mother sued the detective seeking damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983 for illegal seizure of her person in violation of her constitutional rights and damages for malicious prosecution.

As to the mother's section 1983 claim, we conclude that the detective's probable-cause statement, when corrected of misstatements, supported probable cause to believe that the mother had committed a crime against the child resulting in the child's injury, and that the detective is entitled to qualified immunity. We would affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the detective as to the section 1983 claim.

As to the mother's malicious-prosecution claim, however, we are compelled to reach a different result. Federal cases analyzing section 1983 claims and Missouri cases analyzing state malicious-prosecution claims define the term "probable cause" differently. Missouri also employs a different approach to official immunity than the federal courts employ with qualified immunity. As a result, we would reverse and remand the trial court's grant of summary judgment to the defendant in connection with the malicious-prosecution claim. However, because of this anomalous result, we transfer the case to the Missouri Supreme Court due to its general interest and importance and for reexamination of existing law.

Facts and Procedural Background

In May 2006, authorities received a report of suspected abuse of the child, L.C., who had sustained severe bruising around her eye and mouth. L.C. was 23 months old at the time, and had developmental delays. She was unable to crawl well, walk, or climb although she was able to pull herself up to stand. Detective Wicks of the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department and another detective went to the mother's home to interview her and her then-boyfriend. The detectives took both the mother and the boyfriend into custody and interviewed them after reading them their Miranda rights.

During the interview, the mother explained that she put the child to bed in her play yard, and left the child under the boyfriend's supervision when she went to work in the evening. When the mother returned home from work at about 4:30 the following morning, her boyfriend was sleeping, and she found L.C. shut in the bathroom, sitting on the bathroom floor with toilet paper scattered everywhere.

The mother repeatedly insisted that she had seen only a small bruise the child received near her eye at daycare a couple of days earlier, that the child had only a small red mark on her mouth, and that the mother did not know how the child sustained injury. The mother then admitted that she had been frustrated and angry to come home and find the child in the bathroom with toilet paper everywhere. She stated that she opened the bathroom door forcefully, and that she handled the child roughly. The mother eventually stated that the bruising around the child's eye was consistent with the doorknob, and she speculated that perhaps the child had struck her head unbeknownst to the mother when the mother picked up the child. The mother then stated that she took the child to the other bathroom to bathe her. After speculating that perhaps the child suffered bruising near her mouth when the mother cleaned the child's face, the mother then explained how she ran the bathwater, stood the child on the side of the tub to undress her, and then as the mother sat on the floor, she "heaved" the child into the tub. The mother said that the child was not "sturdy" enough when the mother released her, and that the child slipped and fell, striking her face on the side of the tub. The detective expressly asked the mother whether she "threw" the child into the tub, and the mother immediately and expressly denied throwing the child into the tub.

In his probable-cause statement submitted to the prosecuting attorney for the filing of charges and to the court for issuance of an arrest warrant, the detective stated that he had probable cause to believe that the mother "committed criminal offenses in Lincoln County, Missouri." He did not identify the class-C felony of abuse of a child nor did he name any other specific offense. The detective stated, "[The mother] admitted she was angry and picked [up] L.C. in a hurried manor (sic). [The mother] stated she slammed L.C.'s head into the doorknob due to anger." The detective continued, "[The mother] stated she threw L.C. into the bathtub causing severe bruising and swelling to L.C.'s lip." In his affidavit in support of his motion for summary judgment, the detective stated that he submitted to the prosecuting attorney his probable-cause statement, his detailed incident report describing his contact with the mother and the boyfriend, and photographs of the child's injuries. But the detective did not submit the mother's custodial interview to the prosecuting attorney.

The prosecuting attorney charged the mother with the class-C felony of abuse of a child, and the mother was arrested pursuant to a warrant issued by the court. The charges stated that the mother "knowingly inflicted cruel and inhuman punishment upon L.C. . . . by slamming L.C.'s head into a doorknob and throwing L.C. into a bathtub." The criminal case was resolved in the mother's favor.[1] The mother then filed suit against the detective, and sought damages for malicious prosecution and damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983 for illegal seizure of her person in violation of her constitutional rights.

In her two-count petition, the mother asserted that the detective made malicious misstatements of material fact that resulted in the State filing felony child-abuse charges against her. She alleged that the detective acted maliciously, with evil intent, and with a reckless indifference to her rights. The mother's suit focuses on two declarations contained in the detective's probable-cause statement, which the mother claims are false. First, the detective wrote that the mother "stated she slammed L.C.'s head into the doorknob due to anger." Second, the detective wrote that the mother "stated she threw L.C. into the bathtub causing severe bruising and swelling to L.C.'s lip." The mother denied that she made such statements admitting to intentional acts of violence against the child, and pointed to her custodial interview with the detective to support her contentions. The mother alleged no material omissions in the probable-cause statement. The mother sought damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983 for violation of her constitutional rights and for a state-law claim of malicious prosecution.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the detective based on qualified immunity. The trial court determined that the detective was entitled to qualified immunity because probable cause existed to arrest and charge the mother, and because the detective's statements "were not so much different that the failure to directly quote the [mother] amounted to malicious disregard of the truth and other evidence submitted with the probable-cause statement including photos of the alleged victim ...


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