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Blackwell v. Barton, 34 F. 3d 298 (5th Cir. 1994)

Blackwell v. Barton, 34 F. 3d 298 (5th Cir. 1994)

Quick Summary:

The issue before the Court is an illegal arrest and an unnecessary extended detention.  Deville appeals from the district court’s grant of summary judgment to defendants on their 1983 and state law claims, which arise from two separate arrests of Deville, in August 2005 and May 2006.  The Deville’s basis for appeal is that the officer’s arrest was without probable cause and use of excessive force, causing substantial physical injuries.  The Deville’s believed Village of Turkey Creek to be liable for both officer’s.

Background:

The Court viewed the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs.  By doing so, the Court established that on August 5, 2005, while traveling with her granddaughter, Deville was pulled over.  Deville had set her car’s cruise control to 40 mph, which was the speed limit.  The Turkey Creek Police Officer, Tarver, said he pulled Deville over for traveling at 50 mph, 10 mph over the speed limit.  Deville began arguing with Tarver, regarding the speed at which she was traveling and proceeded to disregard Tarver’s instructions, requesting her registration and insurance.  Deville rolled her window up and called her husband and other relatives to inform them of the situation.  At this time, Tarver requested the assistance of the Chief of Police.

The Chief of Police arrived and requested Deville roll down her window, threatening to break the window if she didn’t. The Chief of Police began hitting the window with a black stick (flashlight). Although Deville had begun to roll down the window at this point, the window broke before she was able to do so.  Deville argues that she was never presented with a ticket; whereas, the Turkey Creek Police Officer argues that she refused to sign the ticket.

According to Deville’s account, she was pulled out of the vehicle and thrown up against the car, causing a blow to her abdomen area.  While Deville was placed in handcuffs and being walked towards the police cruiser, she fell to the ground as a result of the pain in her abdomen.  While at the Sheriff’s Office, Deville noticed that she was bleeding from her head and requested treatment. While she was being treated, Deville’s husband and the nurses remarked that the Chief of Police smelled like alcohol, implying that he was intoxicated.  Deville was charged with speeding, aggravated battery, and resisting an officer.  She was released from the Sheriff’s Office and the charges filed against her were subsequently dropped by the district attorney.

A toxicology report taken some time later indicated that Deville was using prescription medications.  Based on this report, the Chief of Police sought an arrest warrant for driving while under the influence of a controlled substance and for illegal use of a controlled substance in the presence of a minor.  The warrant was issued on May 18, 2006, approximately nine months after the first arrest and around the same time Deville provided notice to the Turkey Creek Police regarding claims she would assert arising from the first arrest.  Deville was arrested on June 13, 2006 based on the warrant and released.

Deville alleges that the controlled substance charges were baseless and motivated only by her threat of litigation against the Chief of Police.  The district attorney dropped these charges too.

On the other hand, Defendants (Police Department) have a different view.  The Defendants claim Deville was speeding, she became enraged during the stop, shouted obscenities and refused to sign the speeding ticket. The Defendants state they were concerned about the well fare of the child whom they felt was in clear distress.

On August 24, 2006, Deville filed suit against Village of Turkey Creek, the Chief of Police and the Officer, individually and in their official capacities.  Defendants removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.  Deville’s complaint asserted claims under 1983 against the Officer and the Chief of Police based on unreasonable search and seizure, false arrest, battery, excessive force, and malicious prosecution, the First Amendment and the Ninth Amendment, as well as a claim that the Officer and Chief of Police conspired to violate Deville’s civil rights in violation of 1985.  Deville’s also alleged 1983 claims against Village of Turkey Creek on the basis that it maintained policies or customs exhibiting deliberate indifference to Deville’s civil rights.  Finally, Deville’s asserted claims against Defendants under state law for assault, battery, excessive force, false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution.  The Defendants raised qualified immunity as a defense.

Discussion:

The district court, after considering judgment on the pleadings and summary judgment, concluded that Deville’s did not meet their burden on summary judgment with respect to the federal claims.  The Court granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the federal claims and declined to exercise jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims, dismissing them with prejudice.  Plaintiffs’ timely appealed and this is the issue now before the court.

  1. A. False Arrest:  August 2005 Arrest

To establish that the individual Defendants violated Deville’s constitutional rights by arresting her, the plaintiffs must show that the officers lacked probable cause.  A warrantless arrest must be based on “probable cause.”  Probable cause exists when the totality of the facts and circumstances within a police officer’s knowledge at the moment of arrest is sufficient for a reasonable person to conclude that the suspect had committed or was committing an offense.  Essentially, if there was probable cause for any of the charges made, then the arrest is supported by probable cause, thereby defeating any false arrest claims.

Deville’s claim against Officer Tarver

Deville was charged with three offenses:  failure to sign a traffic ticket, resisting an officer, and speeding.  Plaintiffs met their burden to show that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Officer lacked probable cause to arrest Deville for those offenses.  First off, Louisiana statute permits officers to make arrests of persons who refuse to sign a traffic ticket, in lieu of issuing the usual citation.  This is not a criminal offense, but a procedure for arrests when a traffic offense has occurred.  Second, a person commits the offense of resisting arrest only if he resists a “lawful arrest” – an arrest supported by probable cause.  Therefore, whether Deville was lawfully arrested depends on whether Officer Tarver had probable cause to conduct an arrest at all.

An officer may conduct a warrantless arrest based on probable cause that an individual has committed a minor offense.  The officer stated in a deposition that Deville was traveling at an excessive speed when clocked.  Deville’s deposition testimony provides that she was not speeding.  Deville did not contradict the Officer’s testimony regarding his radar gun, therefore it was uncontradicted that the Officer’s radar gun indicated that Deville was speeding and this established probable cause for the arrest.

Deville did provide evidence that would allow a jury to disbelieve the Officer’s testimony.  The officer admitted that he had a history of problematic arrests and that complaints have been made about him.  The officer even admits that the district attorney asked him to resign from the Turkey Creek police department because he filed a false charge of possession of marijuana against an individual who did not even have marijuana.   Further, the officer testified that although his radar gun had the ability to “lock-in” detected speed, this feature was not used.  In light of this evidence, and the evidence of the Officer’s other falsified charges, coupled with Deville’s testimony regarding her cruise control being set at 40 mph, a reasonable jury could disbelieve the Officer’s testimony and find that he lacked probable cause for arrest.

Despite this conduct, the Defendants may be shielded from liability for civil damages if their actions did not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.  An officer’s conduct is objectively reasonable if a reasonable person in their position could have believed he had probable cause to arrest.  Therefore, because there are genuine issues as to the material facts of whether Deville was detected to have been speeding, whether she was asked to sign a traffic ticket and whether she was exercising her right to resist unlawful arrest, the Court concluded that she was not entitled to qualified immunity.

Deville’s Claim Against Chief of Police

The court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment regarding this claim.  The basis for this is where a police officer makes an arrest based on the oral statement of another officer, an officer is entitled to qualified immunity from liability in a civil rights suit provided it was objectively reasonable for him to believe the statements and believe that probable cause existed.  Here, the evidence shows that the Officer indicated to the Chief of Police the reason for the stop was Deville’s speeding and refusal to sign a traffic ticket.  Since there is no evidence for the Chief of Police to disbelieve the Officer’s statement, the Chief of Police could find the Officer to be a reliable witnessing officer.

  1. Excessive Force

To establish a claim of excessive force under the Fourth Amendment, plaintiffs must demonstrate: (i) injury, (ii) which results directly and only from use of a force that is clearly excessive, and (iii) the through an excessiveness that is clearly unreasonable. Factors to include are as follows: (i) the severity of the crime at issue, (ii) whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, (iii) and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.

Applying such factors to this case, conclusions point out the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the Defendants. Deville concludes that she was pulled over for a minor traffic violation, making the need for force substantially lower than if she had been suspected of a serious crime. Deville poses that there were not any reasons to believe that her actions posed a threat to the Officers, herself, or her grandchild. There is no evidence or other indication given that proves Deville tried to flee from the scene or tried to use the vehicle as a weapon. Defendants have not argued in appeal that she actually attempted to flee. Most importantly, there is a factual dispute over the nature of Deville’s resistance. According to the plaintiff’s version of events, her resistance was, at most, passive in that she merely refused to leave her grandchild and exit the vehicle until her husband arrived at the scene, not that she affirmatively, physically resisted as the Officer’s contend.

Taking the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, a jury could reasonably find that the degree of force the Officers used in this case was not justifiable under the circumstances. A reasonable jury could infer from Deville’s deposition testimony that the Chief of Police engaged in very little, if any, negotiation with her but rather resorted to breaking her driver’s side window and dragging her out of her vehicle. To the extent the Officers claim they needed to use force to prevent Deville from fleeing or using the vehicle as a weapon, Deville testified that the car’s motor was running but that she never put the vehicle in gear. It is undisputed whether or not Deville told the officer’s she was waiting for her husbands to arrive, indicating that she was not going to flee.

Finally, the jury could view the severity of Deville’s injuries as evidence of excessive force. The day after the arrest, Deville visited a doctor who observed multiple injuries, which include: contusions to both wrists, neuropathy of her hands, right shoulder strain, left shoulder bruising (with hand prints), and multiple cuts caused by broken glass (with one on her forehead). She also suffered neuropathy in both her hands and fingers, which required four surgeries and multiple other injections.

As to the allegation that the Officer used excessive force in that he applied the handcuffs too tightly, we have held “that minor, incidental injuries that occur in connection with the use of handcuffs to effectuate an arrest do not give rise to a constitutional claim for excessive force. In this case, Deville has provided evidence that the handcuffs were applied so tightly as to cause long-term nerve damage that was severe enough to require four surgeries. These injuries are not de minimis. While the Officers claim that Deville did not complain about being cuffed too tightly, the injuries Deville sustained creates a genuine issue as to these material facts. Thus, in light of the other factual disputes outlined previously, plaintiffs have established the presence of material factual disputes regarding the Officer’s alleged use of excessive force in applying the handcuffs.

Defendants contend they are entitled to qualified immunity on plaintiffs’ excessive force claims even if Deville has shown she was deprived of a constitutional right. Accepting Deville’s version of events for summary judgment purposes, this case implicated: a traffic stop for a minor traffic offense unsupported by probable cause; Deville’s passive resistance to being removed from her car and separated from her grandchild, in compliance with her well-established rights under state law to resist an unlawful arrest; the Officer’s threat of calling child protective services despite no indication that the child was in distress or that Deville intended to flee; the Chief of Police who others said smelt of alcohol beating on Deville’s window with a black stick (flashlight) and breaking the window; a rough extraction of Deville from the vehicle by both Officers present, causing a forceful blow to Deville’s abdomen; and handcuffs applied so tightly they caused severe nerve damage. These alleged facts are sufficiently egregious to warrant a denial of qualified immunity because a reasonable officer would have know the degree of force was unconstitutionally excessive under the circumstances at hand.  With the matter at hand, Defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity on the excessive force claims.

  1. C. False Arrest and Malicious Prosecution: May 2006 Arrest

Plaintiffs next argue that the district court erroneously granted summary judgment to defendants on their alleged constitutional violations stemming from the May 2006 arrest. Despite the conduct of both the Officer and the Chief of Police, it must be shown that the officials violated specific constitutional rights in connection with a “malicious prosecution”. Accordingly, plaintiff’s claims in regard to “malicious prosecution” in respect to the May 2006 arrest is not independently cognizable, and defendants are therefore entitled to summary judgment on that claim.

The plaintiff’s offer two theories of liability according to the May 2006 unlawful arrest claim: that there was not probable cause to support the second arrest in and that the Chief of Police failed to conduct a reasonable investigation prior to Deville’s arrest. Even if assumption were made that the Chief of Police made the May 2006 arrest without a probable cause, he nevertheless made the arrest pursuant to a valid arrest warrant signed by a justice of the peace. Despite review by an independent intermediary, the initiating party may be liable for false arrest if the plaintiff shows that “the deliberations of that intermediary were in some way tainted by the actions of the defendant”. Plaintiffs have not argued that the defendants somehow tainted the justice of the peace’s deliberations, meaning that review by that independent intermediary relieves them of liability for the alleged false arrest, and the district court thus properly granted summary judgment to them on this case.

Also, plaintiffs have not pointed to any legal basis for asserting a claim that the Chief of Police violated Deville’s constitutional rights by failing to undertake a reasonable investigation. Accordingly, the Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on this “unreasonable investigation” claim.

  1. D. Municipal Monell Liability

Plaintiffs brought about the argument that the Village Turkey Creek establishment is liable for its deliberately indifferent failure to adequately train and supervise the Officer and Chief of Police on duty. In the case of Monell v. Dep’t of Social Servs., a municipality is liable only if its “execution of government’s policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy through, inter alia, the actions of the municipality’s legislative body or an individual with final decision making authority.

In City of Canton v. Harris 489 U.S. 378 (1989) a case involving the training of police officers, the Court held that a municipality could be liable for failing to train its employees. The Court further elaborated that “[o]nly where a failure to train reflects a ‘deliberate’ or ‘conscious’ choice by a municipality can be liable for such a failure. In regards to City of Canton v. Harris, the plaintiff’s allegations that the municipality failed to properly discipline its employees will be taken into consideration further.

To draw a conclusion to this case we must restate the fact that the Officer did have one other excessive force complaint filed against him (after the Deville case) as well as a false charge of possession of marijuana, which resulted in his resignation as a Turkey Creek Officer.  Also, testimonials from Deputy Adam Fruge of the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Department state that the Officer did have a “quick temper”, used force on a couple occasions, and had been untruthful while testifying in court on a prior occasion. However, there is no indication that anyone other than Fruge knew about these problems. Finally, as to the Chief of Police, he was once subject to an anonymous complaint, filed with the state troopers that he smelled of alcohol on a traffic stop but after the troopers investigated, immediately found that he had not been drinking. Plaintiffs have not introduced evidence that would permit a jury to find that the Village of Turkey Creek acted with deliberate indifferences towards Deville’s constitutional rights in failing to discipline these officers.

There is not any evidence that proves formal complaints were filed against them before the Deville incident nor any evidence that proves the village or relevant decision makers knew about the problems stated by Deputy Fruge. Thus, plaintiffs have not shown that the Village’s alleged failure to discipline the officers was undertaken with, “deliberate indifference” to the ‘known or obvious consequences’ that constitutional violations would result”. Accordingly, the district court did not err in granting summary judgment to the Village of Turkey Creek on the plaintiff’s claims.

Conclusion:

For the preceding reasons, the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the Defendants on the following claims are as followed: the false arrest claim against the Officer arising from the August 2005 arrest; the excessive force claims against both the Officer and Chief of Police arising from the August 2005 arrest; the claim against the Officer under Louisiana State Law for false arrest and imprisonment arising from the August 2005 arrest; the claim against both the Officer and Chief of Police under Louisiana Law for excessive force/battery; and the vicarious liability claim under Louisiana law against the Village of Turkey Creek. The district court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants in all other respects is affirmed. Accordingly, the case is remanded to the district court for further proceedings with this opinion.

AFFIRMED in part; REVERSED in part; and REMANDED.

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