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Durham v. Horner, Case No. 11-1022

Decided: August 8, 2012

Michael Dwayne Durham was indicted by a Virginia grand jury on three counts of selling drugs and was later arrested and jailed for several months.  The indictment of Durham resulted from the investigative work of David L. Horner, a police officer serving on a regional drug task force.  Horner’s investigation had primarily relied upon a confidential informant who had purchased the drugs from Durham.  The problem with the State’s case against Durham, however, was that the actual perpetrator of the crimes was a man named Michael David Durham.  Michael Dwayne Durham—the suspect in custody and who the Virginia authorities had located in Memphis, Tennessee and transported to Virginia—had absolutely nothing to do with the drug transactions and had not lived in Virginia in over a decade.  After the prosecutor realized the mistaken identity and dropped the charges, Durham brought a civil lawsuit against Horner, alleging his federal constitutional rights had been violated under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and that he had been maliciously prosecuted under state law.  The district court granted summary judgment for the defendant on the basis of his qualified immunity as a law enforcement agent.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling.  The court applied its two-step approach for determining whether a police officer’s qualified immunity defense could be defeated:  “first whether a constitutional violation occurred and second whether the right violated was clearly established.”  The majority opinion, written by Judge King, found that no constitutional violation had taken place because Durham’s arrest and prosecution had been supported by probable cause.  The court stated that “an indictment, fair upon its face, returned by a properly constituted grand jury, conclusively determines the existence of probable cause.”  In addition, the court found that there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable police officer to believe that the Durham who was arrested was the same Durham who was actually conducting the drug deals.  Such incriminating evidence included:  the falsely accused Durham had a local address as a result of previously living in the area; he had a Tennessee driver’s license and the drug dealer had a Tennessee license plate; and Durham had two past convictions for drug-related incidents.

In dissent, Judge Wynn argued that summary judgment was inappropriate because there was a genuine dispute of fact as to whether Horner acted reasonably in confirming the accuracy of the name supplied by his informant.  Judge Wynn also took issue with the majority’s discussion of the law on qualified immunity.  According to Judge Wynn, the United States Supreme Court had already rejected the proposition that a grand jury indictment that is proper on its face conclusively establishes probable cause.

Full Opinion

-John C. Bruton, III