An eyewitness to a crime can be a gift to law enforcement investigations – but even the presence of an eyewitness will not always lead to a guilty verdict. One positive eyewitness identification can, however, formulate probable cause to initiate an arrest.

In this case, the Seventh Circuit reaffirmed the bar to establish probable cause and determined that the law enforcement agency was not required to determine the reliability of eyewitnesses before initiating an arrest. Moorer v. City of Chicago, 92 F.4th 715, 720 – 721 (7th Cir. 2024).

Here, Plaintiff Thomas Moorer (“Moorer”) was detained for nearly seven years before he was acquitted of the murder of Edward Ramos (“Ramos”). Moorer filed a complaint against the City of Chicago (“City”) and twelve Chicago Police Department (“CPD”) officers involved in his arrest.

He made several claims before the Northern District Court of Illinois (“District Court”), but the appeal to the Seventh Circuit focused on unlawful pretrial detention.

Pre-trial detention permits law enforcement to detain individuals both before and after the legal process begins. However, pre-trial detention can be unlawful if the detaining agency lacks probable cause to believe the detainee committed a crime.

Moorer argued that the police did not have probable cause for his arrest based on specific facts undermining the credibility of witness identifications and other alleged errors in the investigation process.

Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the District Court’s finding that the arresting officers had probable cause and that there was no evidence to support Moorer’s argument that the CPD should have doubted the witness identifications, rendering his pre-trial detention lawful.

I.     Moorer’s Criminal Case & Pre-Trial Detention

Death of Edward Ramos & Criminal Prosecution

Around midnight on August 27, 2010, three women arrived at an apartment shared by Edward Ramos, his brother Edwin Ramos, and three of their cousins. As a cousin exited the apartment to greet the three women, a man with his face covered, dressed in black, and brandishing a gun appeared, as well as an accomplice. The three women left to call 911.

The masked man forced the cousin, at gunpoint, to knock on the door. Once Ramos opened the door, the man opened fire and struck one victim in the leg and hit another in the head. The assailant’s face was uncovered at this point.

A footchase between the assailant and Edwin Ramos ensued, but Edwin Ramos was soon confronted at gunpoint and moved to retreat. Edward Ramos stepped into the line of fire, was shot in the chest, and later died at the hospital. Both assailants fled.

Through the investigation process, the CPD identified Moorer as a potential suspect. Relevant information that went into forming probable cause included:

  • On-scene interviews with witnesses where Edwin Ramos stated he recognized the masked assailant as a man who had threatened Edward Ramos in the week prior and went by the nickname “Boom.”
  • A database search for the nickname “Boom” that yielded Moorer’s photograph, although the investigating officers could not remember who performed the search, how many results occurred, nor how Moorer’s photo was chosen.
  • Interviews with each witness conducted by an Assistant State’s Attorney.
  • A positive photo identification by five witnesses.
  • Positive identification of Moorer in a live line-up by seven witnesses.
  • Investigation into Moorer’s alibi where his sister stated she did not see Moorer between 7:00 PM and 2:00 AM on the night of the incident.

Moorer was indicted on 135 counts and charged with first-degree murder and other crimes.

In July 2017, the criminal trial jury found Moorer not guilty on all counts. Ten months later, Moorer filed a lawsuit against the City and the CPD officers involved in the investigation and arrest, contesting the constitutionality of his pretrial detention.

II.     Moorer’s Civil Claims Against the City and CPD Officer

Moorer made several civil claims against the Defendants, but the focus here is the pre-trial detention.

Probable cause to support pre-trial detention is assessed based on conclusions the arresting officer may reasonably draw from the information available at the time of arrest. One positive identification from a credible eyewitness supports probable cause. Here, the Defendants had seven.

However, Moorer’s argument was that these identifications could not be relied upon because they were coerced or manipulated. To invalidate the identifications, Moorer must show the Defendants sought to trick the witnesses into an unreliable identification or that a jury could infer that the officers failed to recognize an untruthful identification.

Specifically, Moorer argued the following indicated that the Defendants should have known the eyewitnesses were mistaken or lying when they identified Moorer as a suspect:

  • Gaps in the record regarding how Moorer became a suspect, missing evidence, unfollowed leads, and exculpatory evidence rendered the witness identifications’ unreliable or overly suggestive.
  • The eyewitnesses who identified Moorer were not credible because it was dark and they stated the suspect had a mask on a majority of the time, rendering it hard for them to see the assailant.
  • The in-person line-up was overly suggestive because of the size discrepancies between Moorer and the fillers and Moorer’s clothing matched how the witnesses described the assailant’s clothing,
  • The photo array was unreliable because three fillers were bald, despite no witnesses describing the assailant as bald.
  • Moorer’s repeated appearance in the photo array and in-person line-up rendered the in-person line-up unreliable.
  • The CPD lost or destroyed Edward Ramos’ cell phone, which Moorer argued would have potentially exculpatory evidence.
  • The CPD failed to follow other leads; despite inconsistencies suggesting he was not the murderer, such as a witness providing an incorrect nickname for a search, weight difference between the witnesses’ descriptions and Moorer at arrest, lack of injuries or bloody clothing at the time of arrest, location pings on a cellphone associated with the nickname “Boom” that did not align with Moorer’s locations, and that Moorer’s vehicle did not match the witnesses’ descriptions.

Moorer essentially sought to prove that the Defendants set him up. The District Court agreed with Moorer that it was unclear how exactly he became a suspect, but stated, “flawed policework is not a sufficient basis from which to draw that inference [that he was set up].” Moorer v. Valkner, 2021 WL 5998533, *15 (N.D. Ill. 2021).

The District Court concluded that based on the facts and circumstances, there was evidence that Moorer did not commit the murder. However, that evidence did not undermine the Defendants’ probable cause to detain Moorer, which was based on identifications by seven different eyewitnesses.

Additionally, Moorer was unable to show the Defendants sought to trick or coerce the witnesses into making unreliable identifications. For example, Moorer did not point to any evidence that the detective knew Ramos’ phone contained information that would exculpate Moorer, or that the CPD officer destroyed it in bad faith, and the loss of the phone did not show that the Defendants knew Moorer was innocent.

The District Court specifically noted that it was unclear which CPD officer ran a nickname search, how many search results turned up, or why Moorer’s photograph in particular was included in the images shown to Edwin.

The District Court also noted that the timeline of events leading up to the photo array identification did not make sense. Specifically, Edwin’s interview with Detective Valkner in which he identified Moorer based on the nickname “Boom,” is timestamped 1:30 A.M. It generally takes officers ten to twenty minutes to put together a photo array. But at 1:35 A.M., just five minutes later, a witness identified Moorer in a photo array.

From these holes and discrepancies in the record, Moorer implied that a jury could fill the gaps with an inference that Defendants set him up.

III.     Seventh Circuit Appeal

On appeal, Moorer argued that the analysis should not have been whether the witnesses’ identifications were coerced or manipulated, but rather that the correct framework for a probable cause determination should focus on reliability and the totality of the circumstances.

Moorer specifically argued that probable cause for his arrest did not exist because (1) the witnesses were coached; (2) the witnesses’ identifications were based on descriptions of the event that would have been impossible for the witnesses to observe; (3) the identifications were unreliable because the witness did not see the offender; or (4) the identifications contained erroneous facts about the offender.

Moorer asserted that the proper focus was on reliability of the witness identifications, not that the identifications were coerced or manipulated.

However, these are proper arguments for trial, not for forming probable cause.

Police work does not require deciding if a judge or jury would believe the witness or if there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of the suspect’s guilt.  Instead, the officers need only to reasonably believe that a suspect committed a crime. This is because officers must deal with reluctant witnesses, inconsistent witness identifications, and recanted confessions. Issues of credibility are left to the judge and jury.

Here, no specific facts would make the identifications so incredible that a reasonable officer would not believe the witnesses were telling the truth. Many of Moorer’s examples, such as poor viewing conditions, the nickname “Boom” versus “Boomer,” lack of Moorer’s DNA at the scene, coaching of witness Edwin Ramos to select Moorer’s photo, and potential unpursued alibis, were found to be overstatements of the record.

The lack of Moorer’s DNA at the crime scene did not prove that Moorer was not at the scene; it just established that there was no evidence that Moorer was at the scene. Further, Edwin’s identification of Moorer from the pages of photos was not in any way compromised by the post-identification actions of copying the photo and having Edwin circle and sign the photo to confirm the identity.

The Seventh Circuit ultimately held that none of the evidence negated the probable cause established by the seven witnesses’ identifications of Moorer as the perpetrator.

Authored by:

not pictured: Michael Parille