case law update

Federal Agents Protected after Claims of Excessive Force and Unreasonable Seizure Made by Bottling Company and Its Employees

A bottling company and its employees recently brought Bivens claims against federals agents for violating their Fourth Amendment rights when executing a white collar search warrant. The Eighth Circuit held that the agents’ actions were reasonable.

Mountain Pure, LLC (“Mountain Pure”) is a water bottling company located in Arkansas. The Small Business Administration (“SBA”) and the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) suspected that Mountain Pure’s owner, John Stacks, submitted a fraudulent application for a SBA disaster relief and diverted the loan proceeds he received to his other businesses.  

After investigating the matter further, agents Cynthia Roberts of the SBA and Bobbi Spradlin of the IRS obtained a warrant to search Mountain Pure’s bottling facility. The warrant authorized the seizure of “any and all business records,” “any and all purchasing records,” “tax preparation records,” and electronically stored files relating to Stack’s suspected fraud.

On the morning of January 18, 2012, thirty-five federal and state law enforcement agents drove in a convoy to the facility with their sirens roaring and lights flashing. Suited in a ballistic vests and armed with handguns, the federal agents engaged in a protective sweep of the facility. Agents pushed Mountain Pure employees and one even drew his weapon on vice president Court Stacks. Neither Roberts nor Spradlin drew her firearm or instructed others to do so.

After finishing the protective sweep of the facility, the agents detained the employees in the break room and confiscated their cell phones. The length of the detentions varied – employees who worked in the plant area were allowed to return to work, while many of the office employees were detained until mid to late afternoon. Additionally, some of the employees were held for interrogation. The agents seized a multitude of documents, including drawings, schematics, binders, operating manuals for machines, and even a college tax textbook.

Mountain Pure and nine employees brought Bivens claims against agents Roberts and Spradlin, alleging violations of their Fourth Amendment rights. Specifically, Mountain Pure alleged the agents used excessive force when executing the warrant and unlawfully seized property outside of the warrant’s scope. The employees alleged the agents used excessive force, unlawfully seized their personal property, and unlawfully detained them. The district court granted Roberts and Spradlin’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that qualified immunity barred the claims against them.

Mountain Pure and the employees filed this appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The court of appeals reviewed de novo the district court’s grant of summary judgment based on qualified immunity. In order for qualified immunity to protect government officials from liability for civil damages, the court of appeals must examine whether the facts, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, demonstrate the deprivation of a constitutional right and whether that right was clearly established at the time of deprivation.

The court first addressed Mountain Pure’s contention that the number of agents and their possession of weapons amounted to excessive force. In assessing a Fourth Amendment violation, the court must determine whether the government acted reasonably, viewing the circumstances objectively. Here, the court found that the agents acted reasonably, stating that that the size of the facility justified the number of agents involved and that SBA and IRS policies requiring agents to carry handguns permitted their use.

The court of appeals also considered Mountain Pure’s argument that the agents unlawfully seized documents, none of which were “business records” nor “purchasing records” within the scope of the warrant. Citing McClendon v. Story Cty. Sheriff’s Office, 403 F.3d 510, 517 (8th Cir. 2005), the court of appeals noted, “officers executing a search warrant are not obliged to interpret it narrowly.” Because the documents obtained reflected the equipment Mountain Pure owned, the court found that seizure of the documents was reasonable under the circumstances.

Next, the court turned to the individual employees’ arguments that the agents unlawfully seized the employees as well as their personal property. As stated in United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 703 (1983), to determine whether a seizure is reasonable, the court balances the nature and quality of the intrusion of the employees’ Fourth Amendment rights against the importance of the governmental interests that justify the intrusion.

Looking at whether the agents unlawfully seized the employees, the court of appeals held that the government had a legitimate interest to detain the employees that outweighed any intrusion because the agents prevented flight and ensured completion of the search. The court found the length of the detentions reasonable because the search lasted nearly twelve hours and the temporal limit on detaining employees while executing a warrant have not been clearly identified. The court of appeals also concluded that any interrogation conducted was reasonable as no evidence showed the questioning prolonged the seizures.  

The court then moved on to determine whether the agents unlawfully seized the employees’ cell phones. The court found that the government’s interest in preserving evidence outweighed the seizure of the employees’ cell phones. The employees’ phones could be used to access and erase electronic files remotely before they were seized. Further, the seizures did not violate the employees’ clearly established rights – no case law existed that invalidated a seizure of a detainees’ cell phone.

Lastly, the court of appeals addressed the employees’ claims of excessive force, alleging that the unidentified agents pushed them against the walls and pointed handguns at them. The court agreed with the district court in granting summary judgment on these claims as no evidence existed showing Roberts and Spradlin participated in, ordered, or condoned the alleged use of excessive force.

Therefore, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the order of the district court granting summary judgment on Mountain Pure’s and the individual employees’ Fourth Amendment claims.

Read the full case: Mountain Pure, LLC v. Roberts

 


 

This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

Tags: case law update, michael j sgarlat

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