Victory for our client – federal appeals court establishes proper standards for taking a person into protective custody

On February 1, 2017 we won an important victory for our client Peter Alfano, who was unlawfully taken into protective custody on his way into a concert at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield. Mr. Alfano had been drinking but he was not driving. He was coherent. He was not bothering anyone. Despite this, police placed Mr. Alfano into protective custody, handcuffed him, took him in a van to the police station, then held him in a cell for five hours. Mr. Alfano’s lawsuit alleged that police violated the Fourth Amendment by taking him into protective custody without probable cause to believe he was “incapacitated.” Under the law, incapacitated is more than just intoxicated; a person is incapacitated only if he or she so intoxicated as to be a danger to himself or herself, or to others.

The district court dismissed the lawsuit, saying that the legal requirements for police to take someone into protective custody were not clear. Under a doctrine called “qualified immunity,” police can avoid liability for violating constitutional rights by arguing that the rights in question were not “clearly established.” Unlike the rest of us, for whom ignorance of the law is no excuse, for police officers it is.

In a unanimous decision, the three-judge federal appeals court panel rejected the officer’s claim that the law was not clear in this case. The court held that any reasonable police officer would have known that they must have probable cause (not the lower standard of “reasonable suspicion”) to place someone in handcuffs and lock him up for five hours, even if the person was not being charged with a crime. The court also held that the law was clear that police can only take someone into protective custody for being “incapacitated,” not for being intoxicated. You can be under the influence of alcohol at a concert so long as you are not a danger to yourself or others.

The decision, which you can read here, is important because police officers in Massachusetts too often have locked people up for being intoxicated in public. In 2015, our firm won a jury verdict against the Town of Foxborough because we proved that the Town had a practice of illegally taking people into protective custody at Gillette Stadium events. Tuesday’s decision from the court of appeals sets precedent that all police officers in Massachusetts will have to follow. We are sending a copy of the opinion to the Massachusetts municipal police training academy.

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