The case of a motorcyclist who claimed he was illegally arrested and searched at a Sahuarita Walmart in 2019 has been dismissed.
In a formal order signed Feb. 16, U.S. District Judge John C. Hinderaker granted a motion for summary judgment originally filed by the defendants in October 2022. The defendants – the Town of Sahuarita, John George, Joseph A. Rivera, Jess Villanueva, Shannon Collier and Samuel Almodova – asserted the plaintiff, Freedom Christopher A. Pfaendler, failed to disclose any damages claimed in the case, and further failed to show there was a “genuine issue for trial.”
In his ruling, Hinderaker said the court found probable cause supported Pfaendler’s arrest; that the officers validly searched Pfaendler; and that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity in all respects, including in the search of Pfaendler’s backpack.
As a result, Pfaendler will “take nothing,” according to the court filing, and the complaint and action have been dismissed.
Richard Wintory, Pfaendler's attorney, said his team is reviewing the ruling to determine if an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is “in our client’s best interests.”
The case stems from Pfaendler's initial arrest on Aug. 16, 2019, while he was shopping at a Sahuarita Walmart.
According to court filings, the store manager and employees called police because Pfaendler appeared to ignore several requests by the manager to leave the store and kept his full-face motorcycle helmet on with the visor down inside the store, which was alarming to employees.
The incident took place just days after a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, left 23 people dead, and another shooting outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio, left nine dead.
Pfaendler, who was not armed, later told officers he never heard the Walmart manager ask him to remove his helmet because he was listening to music through his Bluetooth-equipped helmet, according to his lawsuit and conversations with SPD officers captured on body camera footage.
Police officers later arrested Pfaendler on suspicion of trespassing, searched him and cited him for disorderly conduct. Though one officer submitted the citation for prosecution, the charges against Pfaendler were dropped in October 2019.
Pfaendler later filed his initial lawsuit against the police officers involved – George, Rivera, Villanueva, Collier and Almodova – and vicariously against the Town of Sahuarita, alleging 11 counts against the officers, including that he was illegally searched, falsely arrested, maliciously prosecuted after being detained for 17 hours and defamed when the Sahuarita Police Department’s public information officer spoke to the media after the incident.
Almodova, the department’s PIO at the time, was dismissed from the case in 2021, and has retired.
But the court ultimately dismissed that suit without prejudice for failure to state a claim. An earlier motion for summary judgment filed on behalf of the police officer defendants alleged Pfaendler failed to “strictly comply with the service of the notice of the claim,” and mishandled giving notice to the individual officers.
Pfaendler’s attorney served a notice of claim on the Town of Sahuarita via the town clerk in December 2019, but did not properly serve the claim on the individual defendants listed in the claim – George, Rivera, Villanueva and Collier.
As a result, Hinderacker partially granted summary judgment in favor of the police officer defendants on March 28, 2022, but declined to rule on Pfaendler’s claims of vicarious liability against the Town of Sahuarita, citing ambiguous Arizona law that could permit vicarious liability for an employer even when its agents receive summary judgment.
The court heard oral arguments on the defendant’s second motion for summary judgment and on Pfaendler’s remaining state and federal claims – false arrest, malicious prosecution, and illegal search – on Feb. 8.
In his order, Hinderaker explained that Pfaendler’s claims depend on whether the police officers had probable cause to arrest him for trespassing or disorderly conduct, and whether they searched him lawfully.
Probable cause considers the totality of the circumstances known to officers at the time and does not require officers to believe every innocent explanation. Trespassing is knowingly remaining on a property after a reasonable request to leave, and disorderly conduct includes knowingly making a protracted display to prevent the transaction of business.
Police officers are also entitled to qualified immunity if their “conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known,” according to the ruling.
In this case, the court determined that probable cause supported Pfaendler’s arrest, citation, prosecution and the following search of Pfaendler.
Given several aspects surrounding the encounter – Pfaendler’s unusual dress compared to other customers and given the summer heat, that several store employees had called 911 to report a suspicious person, that officers were aware that a Texas Walmart has been the site of a mass shooting just days before, and that the store manager told officers he asked Pfaendler to leave several times – Hinderaker found that an officer could reasonably conclude “there was a fair probability Plaintiff knew he was remaining in Walmart unlawfully,” and that “probable cause existed to arrest Plaintiff for trespassing and disorderly conduct.”
The court also found that a reasonable officer could choose not to believe Pfaendler’s explanations about being unable to notice or hear the manager’s requests to leave because he was listening to music through his helmet.
“Together with the details above, an officer could find it implausible that Plaintiff's music rendered him so unaware of his surroundings he did not notice the manager following him around asking him to leave. An officer could similarly find it implausible that Plaintiff's music prevented him from noticing three police officers approaching and surrounding him until one of them stepped in close and spoke in a raised voice,” the ruling stated.
“Based on the recent Walmart shooting and observations of Plaintiff's dress, manner, and potentially implausible explanations, together with the manager's account, an officer could conclude that Plaintiff intended his appearance to be disconcerting and thereby disrupt Walmart's business. Alternately, an officer could conclude Plaintiff knew his appearance was disconcerting but chose to proceed anyway despite the apparent effect of disrupting Walmart's business. Either way, an officer could conclude—reasonably even if mistakenly—probable cause existed to suspect Plaintiff of disorderly conduct,” the ruling said.
This finding defeated all of Pfaendler’s claims except for illegal search of his backpack.
In that scenario, the court determined that Pfaendler’s right to be free of a backpack search was “not clearly established” at the time, and that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on that count.
Warrantless searches are generally unconstitutional unless they fit into one of several exceptions, and the defendants in those cases sought summary judgment on primarily under the Search Incident to Arrest (“SITA”) exception, which permits officers to search an arrestee's person and the area “within (the arrestee’s) immediate control” at the time of the arrest.
In the context of a bag, one such threat could be the reasonable possibility that the arrestee may reach the bag to destroy evidence or obtain a weapon, the belief that a dangerous instrumentality like a weapon is inside.
According to the ruling, Hinderacker found the SITA principle was easily applied to the officer’s search of Pfaendler’s person. The officers began searching areas within Pfaendler’s “immediate control” – including his pockets, shoes, and socks – within a couple minutes of his arrest.
Although the question of Pfaendler’s backpack search was “less clearly valid,” according to the ruling, Pfaendler waived any objection to it, and further argued only that the search was illegal because the arrest was illegal.
“An item within an arrestee’s ‘area of detention’ may often be permissibly searched incident to lawful arrest, and Plaintiff's arrest was lawful. Plaintiff thus fails to carry the shifted burden to demonstrate a disputed issue of fact for trial,” the ruling said.