Officer Immune from Suit


Post 4803

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On February 15, 2023, Kimberly Letke (“Plaintiff”) filed a pro se Complaint against Defendant Matthew Sprinkle (“Sprenkle”) for defamation and malicious prosecution.  On October 3, 2023, Plaintiff filed another Complaint added Defendants Cpl. Tyler Beulter of the DNREC police (“Beulter”) and the Attorney General of Delaware, Kathleen Jennings (“Jennings”), in which she added three additional claims: false arrest and violations of public trust, unlawful detention, and violations of her rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In Kimberly Letke v. Matthew Sprenkle, CPL. Tyler Beulter, and Attorney General Kathleen Jennings, C.A. Nos. S23C-10-019 CAK, S23C-10-002 CAK, Superior Court of Delaware (May 6, 2024) the court was faced with a Motion to Dismiss based upon sovereign immunity.

FACTS

Sprenkle hunted and harvested a deer in Cape Henlopen State Park, allegedly trespassing on Plaintiff’s neighbor’s property to reach the Park. Plaintiff shouted at Sprenkle and called the police. The police spoke with Sprenkle and ultimately arrested Plaintiff for a violation of the Delaware statute prohibiting impeding lawful hunting. The charge was ultimately dropped. Plaintiff’s claims, including those for defamation and malicious prosecution spring from that incident and the statements that Sprenkle allegedly made to Beulter about Plaintiff.

Absolute Immunity

The doctrine of sovereign immunity provides that the State of Delaware, including its agencies, can only be sued by consent, or by an express act of the General Assembly. When the State has not waived sovereign immunity, the Court does not have to consider whether the State Tort Claims Act is applicable. The Court has dismissed in the past claims against Delaware state agency defendants where the state agency defendants submitted an affidavit from the Insurance Coverage Administrator of the State of Delaware affirming that the State had not purchased any insurance coverage for such claims. Without a waiver of sovereign immunity, the Court held that plaintiffs’ claims were barred, and therefore, the Court was not required to consider whether the State Tort Claims Act was applicable.

Qualified Immunity

Assuming arguendo that there is not absolute sovereign immunity for Beulter, or that the State has waived sovereign immunity with respect to him or his agency, the doctrine of qualified immunity bars Plaintiff’s claims against Beulter. When properly applied, qualified immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.

ANALYSIS

Plaintiff’s claims against Beulter are founded upon an alleged act or omission arising out of the performance of his official duty, and, therefore, is barred by the qualified immunity statute.

First, all actions surrounding Plaintiff’s arrest were in the performance of an official duty.

Second, there is nothing in the Complaint, other than what may be fairly read as mere accusations, that indicates Beulter was not acting in good faith.

Third, there is nothing in the Complaint that indicates that Beulter acted with gross or wanton negligence.

For the reasons discussed above, Defendant Beulter’s Motion to Dismiss was GRANTED.

No one likes being arrested. Regardless you cannot sue a police officer or a prosecutor for defamation if everything they did was part of their official duties. The state of Delaware allows the state to waive sovereign immunity only if the state has bought insurance to protect it against such claims. Since there was no insurance protecting the officer he was immune from the suit.

(c) 2024 Barry Zalma & ClaimSchool, Inc.

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.

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