Most False Arrest Cases Are Now Longer Not Winnable Because Of Devenport v. Alford

Justice Antonin Scalia author of Devenpeck v. AlfordIn Devenpeck v. Alford, 543 U.S. 146 (2004), the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ “Closely Related Offense Doctrine”, and held that the Fourth Amendment does not require what crime the police arrest you for so long as in retrospect, the reasonably well-trained officer in the abstract could have had probable cause to believe that you committed any crime at all; anything that the law prohibits, even if that crime is not at all “Closely Related” to the arrest crime.

In Devenpeck v. Alford, the United States Supreme Court Syllabus held:

“Believing that respondent was impersonating a police officer, petitioner Haner, a Washington State Patrol officer, pursued and pulled over respondent’s vehicle. While questioning respondent at the scene, petitioner Devenpeck, Haner’s supervisor, discovered that respondent was taping their conversation and arrested him for violating the State’s Privacy Act. The state trial court subsequently dismissed the charge. Respondent then filed this suit in federal court, claiming, among other things, that his arrest violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The District Court denied petitioners qualified immunity, and the case went to trial. The jury was instructed, inter alia, that respondent had to establish lack of probable cause to arrest, and that taping police at a traffic stop was not a crime in Washington. The jury found for petitioners. The Ninth Circuit reversed, based in part on its conclusion that petitioners could not have had probable cause to arrest. It rejected petitioners’ claim that there was probable cause to arrest for impersonating and for obstructing a law enforcement officer, because those offenses were not “closely related” to the offense invoked by Devenpeck at the time of arrest.


1. A warrantless arrest by a law officer is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment if, given the facts known to the officer, there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been or is being committed. The Ninth Circuit’s additional limitation—that the offense establishing probable cause must be “closely related” to, and based on the same conduct as, the offense the arresting officer identifies at the time of arrest—is inconsistent with this Court’s precedent, which holds that an arresting officer’s state of mind (except for facts that he knows) is irrelevant to probable cause, see Whren v. United States, 517 U. S. 806, 812–815. The “closely related offense” rule is also condemned by its perverse consequences: it will not eliminate sham arrests but will cause officers to cease providing reasons for arrest, or to cite every class of offense for which probable cause could conceivably exist.

2. This Court will not decide in the first instance whether petitioners lacked probable cause to arrest respondent for either obstructing or impersonating an officer because the Ninth Circuit, having found those offenses legally irrelevant, did not decide that question.”

Accordingly, under Devenpeck v. Alford, if a police officer arrest you for murder, and probable cause is lacking that you committed a murder, but you were driving one mile per hour over the posted speed limit, your arrest doesn’t violate the 4th Amendment’s proscription against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Prior to Devenpeck v. Alford, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that if the police arrest you for a crime that they did not have probable cause to believe that you committed, if the police want to later-on justify their arrest of you, the crime that they point to that they did have probable cause to arrest you for be “closely related” to the offense for which you were arrested.

Now, under Devenpeck v. Alford, it doesn’t matter what crime the police arrested you for or even thought of when your were arrested, so long as later-on down the road, the police can show that the reasonably well-trained officer in the abstract (that is, not the cop who arrested you but some imaginary officer), would have had probable cause to arrest you for something that the law prohibits; that is, anything that the law prohibits. 

So, now, if the police arrest you for murder, but one of your car’s taillights were out, you can no longer sue for your false arrest for murder.