The Plaintiffs, three taxi drivers, appealed the dismissal of their Amended Complaint alleging that Special Agents of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) McDonald, Riley, and Chow ("ICE Agents”) violated their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights.
The Plaintiffs were U.S. citizens who were licensed to drive taxis in Philadelphia. In June 2009, ICE Agent McDonald received a list of all drivers certified to drive taxis in the city from the Philadelphia Parking Authority’s Taxicab and Limousine Division (“PPA”). The PPA and ICE created a list that identified illegal aliens certified to operate taxis. Those on the list, including the Plaintiffs, were sent letters advising them that they were entitled to a refund on their accounts and were invited to the PPA facility to collect.
When they arrived, each Plaintiff provided his personal information and was instructed to enter another room to receive his refund. Upon entering, the ICE Agents and others “suddenly and violently attacked” and handcuffed each of the three, informing them that they were “being arrested for an alleged immigration violation.” ICE Agents interrogated each one for over an hour. Each Plaintiff told the ICE Agents that he was a U.S. citizen. They were told they had been mistakenly detained, but nonetheless were held for several more hours with other detained drivers and were forbidden to stand or speak. The ICE Agents advised them that they were not allowed to leave because the ICE Agents did not want them to tell other drivers about the ICE operation. There were four uniformed ICE Agents and 10 plainclothes ICE Agents in the room with the detained drivers, many with guns, and several ICE Agents were standing by the exit. The Plaintiffs filed a complaint asserting Bivens claims [a private action against a federal officer for violating constitutional rights] for violations of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. The ICE Agents filed a motion to dismiss and attached declarations from each agent that described their actions in the events. Instead of responding to the motion, the Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint, which—despite having an opportunity to include information from the ICE Agents’ declarations—contained none of that information. The Amended Complaint alleged gross negligence and deliberate indifference violating the Plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable seizure of their persons by: (1) failing to ensure that no U.S. citizen was on the list; (2) arresting the Plaintiffs without probable cause; and (3) failing to release the Plaintiffs once they learned of their U.S. citizenship. The Plaintiffs did not allege claims based on excessive force or racial or ethnic profiling. The District Court granted the ICE Agents’ renewed motion to dismiss with prejudice, finding that the Plaintiffs’ Fourth and Fifth Amendment claims failed to state plausible claims for relief, and regardless, the ICE Agents would be entitled to qualified immunity. This appeal followed. Circuit Judge Patty Shwartz of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit wrote in her opinion that in order to survive a motion to dismiss, the pleading must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,” in order to “give the defendant fair notice of what the … claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” A complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Judge Shwartz explained that to state a claim for unlawful seizure under the Fourth Amendment, a plaintiff must show that a “seizure” occurred and that it was unreasonable. To be personally liable under Bivens, “a plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official’s own individual actions, has violated the Constitution.” As to the claim that the Fourth Amendment was violated by the creation and use of the list to lure the Plaintiffs to the facility, the ICE Agents asserted that the operation was conducted in accordance with federal law. Because the Fourth Amendment limits an agent’s authority, agents are allowed to detain and interrogate someone as long as they have a reasonable suspicion that the person was here illegally. To determine whether an officer had reasonable suspicion, the court must consider, based upon the “totality of the circumstances,” “whether the detaining officer has a ‘particularized and objective basis’ for suspecting legal wrongdoing,” Judge Shwartz wrote, quoting earlier case law. Once, however, the officer has objective facts that give him or her cause to doubt the person’s immigration status, the officer has reasonable suspicion and can detain and question the individual about his or her immigration status. Judge Shwartz said that the Plaintiffs failed to allege facts amounting to a plausible claim that it was constitutionally unreasonable to identify individuals and include them in the operation to determine their immigration status. As a result, the District Court correctly dismissed claims based upon the creation of the list and the ICE operation. Immigration officers have authority to arrest without a warrant “any alien … if he has reason to believe that the alien so arrested is in the United States in violation of any [immigration] law or regulation and is likely to escape before a warrant can be obtained for his arrest.” Based upon the totality of the circumstances alleged, a reasonable officer would believe that he could rely on the process that produced the list of suspected illegal alien drivers, and the Plaintiffs’ inclusion on it, as credible information that they were illegal aliens. Judge Shwartz said in an operation of this kind—a sweep involving a large number of suspected illegal aliens summoned under a ruse—the officers had a reasonable basis in such a developing situation for concluding that suspects were likely to flee before a warrant could issue unless they were held. Accordingly, the Judge held that a reasonable officer would believe that he had the authority to make an arrest, and the Plaintiffs didn’t state a claim that their rights were violated when they were initially detained and questioned. Judge Shwartz said that in the final phase of the operation—after Plaintiffs were confirmed to be U.S. citizens and yet were held—was a closer question. Under an objective test, the Plaintiffs pled sufficient facts to show that a reasonable person would believe he was not free to leave the room. Thus, they alleged that they were barred from leaving, even though the ICE Agents no longer had probable cause to continue holding them or reasonable suspicion that they violated the immigration laws. Determining whether or not this continued seizure was justified requires the court to balance “the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against its promotion of legitimate government interests.” Courts weigh the duration, nature and quality of the intrusion, the governmental interests—such as crime prevention and detection, officer safety, evidence destruction, and control over an operation—alleged to justify the intrusion, and the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests in being free from seizure. Judge Shwartz held that while there may be circumstances where there is reasonable basis to detain a person suspected of no wrongdoing, the Plaintiffs’ allegations might constitute an unlawful seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Nonetheless, Judge Shwartz said that there still was a problem with the Amended Complaint. As the District Court observed, the repeated and collective use of the word “the Defendants” “fail[ed] to name which specific Defendant engaged in the specific conduct alleged.”As a result, the Amended Complaint was ambiguous about each ICE Agent’s role in the operation and whether he committed the act himself or supervised other agents in doing so. There was a serious question as to whether it was plausible that each of the three defendants committed all of the acts ascribed to them, particularly given the number of other individuals brought to the facility during the operation and the affidavits submitted with the ICE Agents’ motion to dismiss. In light of these ambiguities, the Amended Complaint might fail to meet the Supreme Court’s directive that “a plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official’s own individual actions, has violated the Constitution.” Thus, to resolve the ambiguity regarding the precise actions each individual agent allegedly took, the Third Circuit provided the Plaintiffs with a final opportunity to file a pleading that provided more facts that specified each individual’s actions. For those reasons, the Third Circuit affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded the case to the District Court. Lawal v. McDonald, — Fed.Appx. —-, 2013 WL 6670996 (C.A.3 (Pa.) December 19, 2013).