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A Better Partnership
May 26, 2017

COA: Photographs and fingerprints do not trigger a clear Fourth Amendment violation eliminating immunity

When police officers take someone’s photograph and fingerprints, such conduct does not “clearly violate” a constitution right, thus immunity remained in place and shielded the officers from civil liability, said the Michigan Court of Appeals in Johnson v. Vanderkooi, No. 330536.

In August of 2011 police received a complaint regarding an individual wandering through a parking lot and looking through car windows. Police arrived on the scene and found the plaintiff, Denishio Johnson. Mr. Johnson did not have any identification on him, so police took his photograph and fingerprints to try to further identify him. Mr. Johnson sued the officers for a violation of his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, claiming that photos and fingerprints were an unlawful search and seizure as well as an unlawful taking.

Photographs and fingerprints constituting an unlawful search and seizure was one of first impression for the Court of Appeals.  The Court relied on prior statements from the United States Supreme Court to determine that taking fingerprints and photographs is lawful, if the initial stop was justified by a reasonable suspicion. Therefore, taking photographs and fingerprints in these circumstances did not “violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known,” and the doctrine of qualified immunity applied.  The Court also found that Mr. Johnson’s likeness was not impaired, thus his Fifth Amendment rights were not violated and the doctrine of qualified immunity again applied. 

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