(CN) – The 7th Circuit dismissed a lawsuit accusing an Indiana Department of Natural Resources officer of violating campers’ rights by having them arrested for taking another camper’s bags. The campers thought the bags had been abandoned, and said they meant to return them sooner but forgot.
Jo and Jesse Whitlock took their daughter camping at the Indiana Dunes State Park in 2005. While scavenging for firewood, they stumbled across several bags at an apparently deserted campsite.
The Whitlocks loaded the bags into their truck and told a neighboring camper that they would take the property to park authorities.
As they were headed out of the park, Jo Whitlock allegedly got into a fight with her daughter and forgot about the bags. When they returned from a shopping trip, Jo searched the bags and found the owner’s wallet. She called him and left a message that they’d found his bags.
But by that time, the owner had already reported his bags stolen.
The Whitlocks tried to explain the situation to park officers. Jo said she thought the bags would be safer in their truck because she was afraid “some corrupt DNR employee” would steal them.
Officer Shawn Brown prepared a case report and decided there was probable cause to arrest the couple for criminal conversion. About a month later, the campers were arrested on a warrant and spent four days in jail. The charges were soon dropped, and the prosecutor’s file was destroyed in 2006 due to file-storage limits.
The Whitlocks claimed the arrest violated their constitutional rights, because Brown had withheld exculpatory information from the warrant application.
The district court agreed that the couple’s rights had been violated, but said Brown was entitled to qualified immunity because he reasonably believed there was probable cause to arrest them.
The Chicago-based federal appeals court affirmed, but on different grounds. It said the question was not whether probable cause existed, but whether Brown had “intentionally or recklessly” withheld crucial information from the warrant application.
“[I]t is not clear under Indiana law that the information Brown allegedly withheld was material to the probable-cause determination for a charge of criminal conversion,” Judge Diane Sykes wrote. “Brown is therefore entitled to qualified immunity.”