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The common law of torts instructs that an intentional tortfeasor is held to the applicable standard of care, notwithstanding the characterization of the tort as a prank, or even a good faith but incorrect belief that the tort victim will enjoy the joke. Similarly, a law enforcement officer undertaking to seize a non-consenting private citizen will be held to the governing Fourth Amendment standard; an intent to commit a practical joke will not render the officer immune from liability.
Several supervisors at Southwest Airlines convinced two Albuquerque police officers to stage an arrest of Marcie Fuerschbach, a Southwest Airlines employee, as part of an elaborate prank that included actual handcuffing and apparent arrest. Fuerschbach suffered serious psychological injuries as a result of the prank. She sued the officers and the City of Albuquerque under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Fuerschbach also asserted claims for various state torts against the officers, the city, her supervisors, and Southwest Airlines. The district court found that the officers were shielded from the constitutional claims by qualified immunity, and granted summary judgment to all defendants on all other claims. Fuerschbach appealed.
Were the officers shielded from the constitutional claims by qualified immunity?
The appellate court determined that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity as to the employee's Fourth Amendment claims because the officers' alleged seizure of the employee was unreasonable since they lacked a warrant, probable cause, or any legal basis for the seizure. Moreover, there was no exception to the warrant or probable cause requirement for pranks, and the officers allegedly violated her clearly established right to be free from unreasonable seizures. The appellate court reversed the district court's grant of qualified immunity to the officers.