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Sornberger v. City of Knoxville

January 20, 2006


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 02 C 1224-Joe Billy McDade, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ripple, Circuit Judge.


Before, POSNER, RIPPLE and ROVNER, Circuit Judges.

Scott Sornberger ("Scott") and his wife Teresa Sornberger ("Teresa")*fn1 spent approximately four months in jail while awaiting trial for their suspected involvement in the January 12, 2000 robbery of the First Midwest Bank ("First Bank"). Eventually, a man admitting to be the true bank robber came forward, and the Sornbergers were released. They then brought this federal civil rights action, see 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against Rick Pesci, the Knoxville, Illinois chief of police, the City of Galesburg, Illinois and several Galesburg police officers. The complaint alleged that the Sornbergers had been arrested without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment, that Teresa had been coerced into confessing in violation of her Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and that the defendants unlawfully had concealed evidence. The Sornbergers also brought claims on behalf of their children for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

At the close of discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgment. Teresa cross-moved for partial summary judgment on her false arrest claim against Galesburg police officer Dennis Sheppard. The district court granted in full the defendants' motion for summary judgment, and correspondingly denied Teresa's motion for partial summary judgment. The Sornbergers appealed. For the reasons set forth in the following opinion, we affirm the judgment of the district court with respect to the Sornbergers' concealment of evidence claim and the children's claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress. With respect to Scott's claim for unlawful arrest, we affirm the district court's determination that Officers Sheppard and Riley cannot be found liable, but we reverse the entry of summary judgment in favor of Chief Pesci and Officer Clauge. Regarding Teresa's claim for false arrest, we affirm the determination of the district court that neither Chief Pesci nor Officer Clauge may be held liable, but we reverse and remand with respect to Officers Sheppard and Riley. On Teresa's claims related to her involuntary confession, we reverse the judgment of the district court and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We also reverse and remand the district court's determination that Galesburg could not be found liable on a theory of municipal liability for Teresa's claims.


A. Facts

On January 12, 2000, First Bank was robbed by a perpetrator wearing a baseball cap. Only two First Bank employees got a first-hand look at the robber, and only Tracy Clevenger, the teller who handed money to the robber, caught a glimpse of the robber's face. Clevenger described the perpetrator as male, 5'9", approximately 160 pounds, dark complected, dark eyes, dark hair, clean shaven and in his thirties. Knoxville, Illinois Chief of Police Rick Pesci was the first law enforcement official to arrive at the scene. He took the robber's description from Clevenger and called the FBI to assist in the investigation.

Initially, no eyewitness nor any other First Bank employee was able to identify the robber. Shortly after the robbery, however, as three First Bank employees began reviewing bank surveillance video, Brent Dugan, a First Bank employee, remarked that the robber "looked like" Scott Sornberger, who was an acquaintance of Dugan and a former customer of First Bank. First Bank employees Diane Carter and Roger Schultz agreed that the perpetrator captured on video bore some likeness to Scott. After watching the same footage from a different angle, however, Dugan remarked that he was less sure of the likeness. Chief Pesci, who was present intermittently while the employ- ees viewed the surveillance tapes, heard at least one of these comments on the resemblance of the robber to Scott.

Acting on this information, Chief Pesci proceeded to question the First Bank employees about Scott Sornberger. Chief Pesci learned that Scott and Teresa had been customers of First Bank, but that their account had been closed because of a zero or negative account balance. That evening, Chief Pesci sent Knoxville police officers to Scott's work-place to bring him to the police station for questioning. When the police found Scott, he stood 5'11", had blond hair, blue eyes, a fair complexion and a mustache. Despite the discrepancies between Scott's appearance and the description of the bank robber, the police proceeded to question Scott at the station house. They learned that the Sornbergers had experienced recent financial difficulties. Scott also told the officers that he had placed a call to Consumer Credit Counseling earlier in the day. The same evening, Knoxville officers brought Teresa to the police station for questioning. They interviewed her outside of Scott's presence. In the course of questioning, both Sornbergers offered consistent alibis: They were together at Scott's parents' home, using his parents' computer when the robbery occurred.

To assist in the robbery investigation, Chief Pesci obtained the services of City of Galesburg police officers Dennis Sheppard, Anthony Riley and David Clauge. All of these officers are named as defendants in this action. The day after the robbery, Officer Clauge brought still photographs from the bank's surveillance cameras along with digital photos of Scott to show Illinois State's Attorney Paul Mangieri. Mangieri declined to seek an arrest warrant for Scott, but successfully obtained a search warrant for the computer in Scott's parents' house to allow Officer Clauge to confirm Scott's alibi. Later that day, Officer Clauge met again with Mangieri, this time accompanied by Chief Pesci and FBI agent Jeff Jackson. Officer Clauge expressed to Mangieri his belief that the pictures of Scott presented a close match to the ones taken of the robber by the bank surveillance cameras. At the same meeting, Chief Pesci told Mangieri about the Sornbergers' financial problems and their closed account at First Bank. On the information provided by Clauge and Pesci, Mangieri told the officers that they had probable cause to arrest Scott for armed robbery. The officers decided to make the arrest during the execution of the search warrant for Scott's parents' computer. The officers also decided that Officers Sheppard and Riley would re-interview Teresa if she could be found at Scott's parents' home.

The day after the robbery, when Chief Pesci and Officers Clauge, Riley and Sheppard arrived at Scott's parents' house to execute the search warrant, only Teresa was present. The parties dispute whether the officers requested or instructed Teresa to accompany them to the Galesburg police station for questioning. In either case, she complied and was transported to Galesburg in the front seat of a police car, unrestrained by handcuffs. Chief Pesci stayed behind at Scott's parents' home and arrested Scott when he returned.

After Officers Sheppard and Riley arrived at the Galesburg Public Safety Building with Teresa, they conducted her to an interview room and began to question her. This interview resulted in a verbal and eventually a written confession from Teresa in which she admitted that she had assisted her husband in robbing First Bank. Although the existence of the statement is undisputed, exactly what occurred during Teresa's interview is the subject of intense dispute between the parties. According to Teresa, she was told immediately after arriving in Galesburg that she was a suspect in the robbery. Teresa claims that she was then psychologically coerced into confessing by Officer Sheppard who allegedly (1) falsely informed her that witnesses placed her at the scene of the robbery; (2) "repeatedly told her to think about her kids"; (3) "yelled at her and accused her of lying"; (4) falsely promised her that, if she implicated her husband, she would not be charged with any crime; (5) "threatened to call the [D]department of Children and Family [S]ervices" ("DCFS") to take her children away if she continued to maintain her innocence; and (6) "[r]efused to honor her request to speak with an attorney." R.122 ¶ 30. Teresa also maintains that she did not receive Miranda warnings until asked to repeat her oral confession to the Galesburg police stenographer.

According to the defendants' version, Teresa required little prodding before she voluntarily began to "tell her 'story.' " R.110 ¶ 33. The officers claim that they told Teresa that they believed that Scott had committed the robbery, asked Teresa about a witness who had seen Teresa at the bank on the day of the robbery and implored Teresa to tell the truth and to think of her children rather than protecting Scott. The defendants also maintain that Officer Sheppard advised Teresa of her Miranda rights before she orally confessed to the robbery.

After hearing Teresa confess, Officer Sheppard brought Chief Pesci into the interrogation room and asked Teresa to repeat her statement. She resisted, and the officers again suggested that she think of her children; this time, they admittedly made threats to call DCFS. The officers then presented Teresa with a transcribed version of her confession and asked her to sign it. Teresa complied.

Criminal proceedings were instituted against the Sornbergers for bank robbery by the State of Illinois. Teresa's confession was offered into evidence to support the charges against both her and Scott. Teresa brought a pretrial motion to suppress her confession, but the Knox County Court denied the motion after a two-day hearing. Crediting the officers' testimony and finding no due process or self-incrimination violation, the Knox County Court offered the following rationale:

Here, I think there is no question, the credibility of the defendant is-has been attacked successfully. . . . She had to be lying at one time or another, and she admits it here on the witness stand. . . . I have a tainted-clearly having told lies to police authorities and people in positions of authority in the past-type of defendant here. I have no attack successful or not on the police.

R.111, Ex.15 at 52-62.

While the Sornbergers were imprisoned awaiting trial, a man named Philip Pitcher committed a string of bank robberies in Illinois and Indiana. Pitcher resembled Scott Sornberger, prompting State's Attorney Mangieri to ask the FBI to conduct a more detailed comparison of Scott's facial features to the images taken by First Bank's surveillance equipment. The FBI compared Scott's ear to the ear of the perpetrator as pictured in the bank's surveil-lance photographs. The FBI comparison turned up physical differences between Scott and the bank robber that eliminated Scott as a suspect. Charges against the Sornbergers were dropped, and they were released from jail.


A. Standard of Review

We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Upton v. Thompson, 930 F.2d 1209, 1211 (7th Cir. 1991). In doing so, we must construe all facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the Sornbergers, the non-moving parties. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Chortek v. City of Milwaukee, 356 F.3d 740, 745 (7th Cir. 2004). Summary judgment is proper if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).

B. The Sornbergers' Arrests

With respect to the Sornbergers' claims for unlawful arrest, the defendants have invoked the defense of qualified immunity. We shall first set forth the legal framework and then address each arrest.

Government officials performing discretionary functions enjoy qualified immunity from suit to the extent that their conduct "could reasonably have been thought consistent with the rights they are alleged to have violated." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 638-39 (1987); Leaf v. Shelnutt, 400 F.3d 1070, 1079 (7th Cir. 2005). Because qualified immunity protects the defendant not only from liability but also from the burdens of standing trial, courts should determine early in the proceedings whether qualified immunity exists. See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001). To determine whether defendants are entitled to this defense, we follow a two-step analysis. We first ask whether the plaintiff has asserted the violation of a federal constitutional right. Id. at 200; Leaf, 400 F.3d at 1080. If such a violation did occur, we then determine whether the right was so clearly established at the time of the alleged violation that a reasonable officer would know that his actions were unconstitutional. Saucier, 533 U.S. at 202; Anderson, 483 U.S. at 640.

The constitutional right to be free from arrest without probable cause indisputably was established at the time Scott and Teresa were arrested. See, e.g., Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91 (1964) ("Whether [the defendant's] arrest was constitutionally valid depends in turn upon whether, at the moment the arrest was made, the officers had probable cause to make it . . . ."). It does not follow, however, that any arrest made without probable cause necessarily deprives the officers of qualified immunity. The Supreme Court has recognized "that it is inevitable that law enforcement officials will in some cases reasonably but mistakenly conclude that probable cause is present, and . . . in such cases those officials-like other officials who act in ways they reasonably believe to be lawful- should not be held personally liable." Anderson, 483 U.S. at 641. Instead, the relevant question is whether "a reasonable officer could have believed that probable cause existed" to make the arrest. Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 229 (1991) (holding that officers are protected by qualified immunity where they possessed trustworthy, but ultimately incorrect evidence, that a suspect planned to assassinate the President). In this manner, the doctrine of qualified immunity "gives ample room for mistaken judgments by protecting all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Id. at 229 (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341, 343 (1986)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

1. Scott's Arrest

Scott contends that his arresting officers unreasonably concluded that probable cause supported his arrest. Probable cause is a practical, common-sense determination. Maxwell v. City of Indianapolis, 998 F.2d 431, 434 (7th Cir. 1993). The police ordinarily have probable cause when "the facts and circumstances within their knowledge and of which they [have] reasonably trustworthy information [are] sufficient to warrant a prudent [person] in believing that the [suspect] had committed or was committing an offense." Beck, 379 U.S. at 91. The question of probable cause is typically "a proper issue for a jury if there is room for a difference of opinion concerning the facts or the reasonable inferences to be drawn from them." Maxwell, 998 F.2d at 434.

The district court decided, as an initial matter, that Officers Clauge, Sheppard and Riley could be not be found liable for Scott's arrest because Chief Pesci was the only arresting officer. As to Chief Pesci, the court concluded that probable cause in the form of eyewitness testimony, surveil-lance footage, and motive supported Scott's arrest and absolved Pesci of any liability. The district court therefore awarded the defendants summary judgment, concluding that no reasonable juror could find that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest Scott. In the court's view, the following "undisputed facts" armed the officers with probable cause for Scott's arrest: "(1) an individual familiar with Scott positively identified him as bearing a strong resemblance to the robber; (2) pictures of Scott taken the ...

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