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Whitfield v. City of Ridgeland

United States District Court, Fifth Circuit

December 17, 2013



TOM S. LEE, District Judge.

This cause is before the court on cross-motions of plaintiff Charles Dwight Whitfield and of defendants City of Ridgeland and Daniel Soto, in his official and individual capacities, [1] for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. These motions have been fully briefed and the court, having considered the memoranda of authorities, together with attachments submitted by the parties, concludes that plaintiff's motion should be denied; that the City of Ridgeland's motion should be granted; and that Daniel Soto's motion in his individual capacity should be granted in part and denied in part.

This case arises from plaintiff Whitfield's arrest by then Police Officer Daniel Soto on December 7, 2008 in the City of Ridgeland, Mississippi and his subsequent prosecution by the City of Ridgeland. According to the allegations of Whitfield's complaint, around 2:35 a.m., Officer Soto, using the pretext of speeding, stopped plaintiff's vehicle. Plaintiff maintains he was not speeding, and that Soto's assertion that he was traveling 55 miles per hour in a 40 mile-per-hour zone, was false. Plaintiff alleges that in light of that false assertion, he chose to exercise his right to remain silent and refused the officer's request that he submit to a breathalyzer or a field sobriety test, and was immediately arrested for driving under the influence and speeding. He was transported to the police station, where he was booked for speeding, failing to produce proof of insurance and driving under the influence. He bonded out of jail later than morning.

Based on plaintiff's refusal to submit to a breathalyzer test after being arrested, his driver's license was automatically suspended for ninety days pursuant to Mississippi's Implied Consent Law, Miss. Code Ann. § 63-11-5(1). On April 14, 2009, plaintiff was tried and convicted in municipal court of DUI first and speeding. Plaintiff appealed his conviction to the County Court of Madison County, where he was tried de novo on September 14, 2009 and again convicted of the charges. Plaintiff asserts that Officer Soto falsely testified at both trials that there was no video evidence of the stop and arrest.[2] However, following the second trial, plaintiff moved for a new trial and in conjunction with the motion, on January 26, 2009, served a subpoena on Ridgeland Police Chief Jimmy Houston for any and all video relating to plaintiff's arrest. The police department's evidence officer, Greg Phillips, responded to the subpoena that same day and produced to plaintiff's counsel a copy of the video from the night of plaintiff's arrest. That video contradicted, in part, Officer Soto's testimony. The prosecutor, Boty McDonald, after learning that a video of the arrest existed, did not oppose plaintiff's request that the county court dismiss plaintiff's speeding and DUI cases, and the charges against plaintiff were dismissed.[3]

Plaintiff thereafter filed the present action against the City of Ridgeland and Officer Soto, in his official and individual capacities, and against the State of Mississippi, Mississippi Department of Public Safety, Mississippi Highway Patrol and Commissioner Santa Cruz, in his official capacity, asserting putative claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of his rights under the "Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments." By memorandum opinion and order entered May 12, 2012, the court dismissed the State defendants, leaving as defendants the City of Ridgeland and Officer Soto, in his official and individual capacities. The parties have now filed crossmotions for summary judgment.

Defendants argue in their motion that all plaintiff's claims against them are due to be dismissed, as the undisputed facts established by the record evidence do not demonstrate a constitutional violation. The City and Officer Soto in his official capacity further argue that even if plaintiff could create a genuine issue of material fact as to the occurrence of a constitutional violation, he still could not prevail against them since he has no evidence that any such violation resulted from an official policy or custom of the City. Finally, Soto maintains that even if plaintiff could prove a constitutional violation, summary judgment is in order on the claims against him in his individual capacity on the basis of qualified immunity.

The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment guarantees "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. Plaintiff has asserted a claim for illegal arrest and detention in violation of the Fourth Amendment. "Traffic stops are seizures within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment." United States v. Luckey, 402 Fed.Appx. 889 (5th Cir. 2010) (citing United States v. Grant , 349 F.3d 192, 196 (5th Cir. 2003)). In United States v. Brigham , 382 F.3d 500 (5th Cir. 2004) (en banc), the Fifth Circuit observed that "[t]his court, following the Supreme Court, has treated routine traffic stops, whether justified by probable cause or a reasonable suspicion of a violation, as Terry stops[, ]" referring, of course, to standards established by the Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio , 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). Brigham , 382 F.3d at 506 (citing Berkemer v. McCarty , 468 U.S. 420, 439, 104 S.Ct. 3138, 82 L.Ed.2d 317 (1984); Pennsylvania v. Mimms , 434 U.S. 106, 109, 98 S.Ct. 330, 54 L.Ed.2d 331 (1977) (per curiam); and United States v. Dortch , 199 F.3d 193, 198 (5th Cir. 1999)). "Pursuant to Terry, the legality of police investigatory stops is tested in two parts. Courts first examine whether the officer's action was justified at its inception, and then inquire whether the officer's subsequent actions were reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the stop." Id. at 506-07 (citing Terry , 392 U.S. at 19-20, 88 S.Ct. at 1879). The officer's subjective motives for the stop are irrelevant. United States v. Benavides, 291 Fed.Appx. 603, 607 (5th Cir. 2008) (citing United States v. Sanchez-Pena , 336 F.3d 431, 436-37 (5th Cir. 2003)).

Defendants assert that Officer Soto had probable cause for the initial stop of plaintiff's vehicle because the radar in Soto's patrol vehicle indicated that plaintiff was traveling 55 miles per hour in a 40 mile-per-hour-zone. Plaintiff denies that he was speeding and maintains that he was stopped at a traffic light when the officer's vehicle approached him from the opposite direction. He insists that Officer Soto could not possibly have clocked him at 55 miles per hour since his vehicle was not even moving when Officer Soto first encountered him. However, the video of the stop, which has been offered by defendants as an exhibit, clearly contradicts plaintiff's version of these facts. The video shows that the officer's vehicle was traveling north on Old Canton Road and passed through the traffic light at Williams Boulevard just as the light was turning from green to yellow. As the patrol vehicle passed under the light, plaintiff's vehicle came into view, approaching the traffic light from the opposite direction. The video shows that Officer Soto made a U-turn after passing plaintiff's moving vehicle and that he pulled up behind plaintiff as plaintiff was coming to a stop at the traffic light. Contrary to plaintiff's testimony, the video proves that when Officer Soto drove past plaintiff, plaintiff's car was moving and that as plaintiff came to a stop at the red light, Officer Soto was behind him with his lights activated. Thus, plaintiff's contention that the officer could only have clocked him at "0" since he was at a complete stop is flatly contradicted by the video evidence. See Scott v. Harris , 550 U.S. 372, 380-381, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 1776, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007) (describing the plaintiff's version of events as "visible fiction" and "utterly discredited" by facts depicted in videotape and holding that when one party's story "is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment"); Carnaby v. City of Houston , 636 F.3d 183, 187 (5th Cir. 2011) (stating that "[a]lthough we review evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, we assign greater weight, even at the summary judgment stage, to the facts evident from video recordings taken at the scene").

Although the video proves that plaintiff's vehicle was moving when Officer Soto first encountered it, it is impossible to discern from the video the speed at which the vehicle was moving. In his testimony, plaintiff maintained he was not speeding, explaining that it is his practice to drive at or near the posted speed limit in Ridgeland. Yet plaintiff admitted he did not know how fast he was going as he approached Williams Boulevard; he could only "guess" that it was "probably forty." In the court's opinion, in the face of the officer's testimony that his radar registered that plaintiff's vehicle was traveling at 55 miles per hour, plaintiff's guess is clearly insufficient to create a genuine issue for trial on the issue of whether plaintiff was speeding and the stop thus justified. Defendants' evidence establishes that the officer had probable cause to stop plaintiff for speeding. Accordingly, plaintiff has no viable claim for violation of the Fourth Amendment based on the initial stop. See United States v. Benavides, 291 Fed.Appx. 603, 606-607 (5th Cir. 2008) (recognizing that "[p]olice officers may stop an automobile when there is probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred, even if the stop is otherwise pretextual").[4]

Irrespective of whether the initial stop was justified, plaintiff maintains there was no probable cause for his subsequent arrest and detention for driving under the influence. It appears to be an "open question in the Fifth Circuit of whether and to what extent the strictures of Terry... apply to probable cause traffic stops for arrestable offenses....'" Lockett v. New Orleans City , 607 F.3d 992, 1000-01 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting lower court opinion and finding it unnecessary to address the issue); Brigham , 382 F.3d at 506 n.4 (finding it "important to note that at least one of our sister circuits has recently suggested that different constitutional standards may apply to stops based on probable cause"); Berkemer v. McCarty , 468 U.S. 420, 439 n.29, 104 S.Ct. 3138, 3150 n.29, 82 L.Ed.2d 317 (1984) ("We of course do not suggest that a traffic stop supported by probable cause may not exceed the bounds set by the Fourth Amendment on the scope of a Terry stop.").

"Whether an arrest is illegal... hinges on the absence of probable cause" and as such, there is no cause of action for false arrest under § 1983 unless the arresting officer lacked probable cause. Sorenson v. Ferrie , 134 F.3d. 325, 328 (5th Cir. 1998). The same probable cause requirement exists for a claim of false imprisonment. Brown v. Lyford , 243 F.3d 185, 189 (5th Cir. 2001). In order to make a lawful arrest, an officer must have probable cause to believe the suspect committed a crime. "Probable cause exists when the totality of facts and circumstances within a police officer's knowledge at the moment of arrest are sufficient for a reasonable person to conclude that the suspect had committed or was committing an offense." Flores v. City of Palacios , 381 F.3d 391, 402 (5th Cir. 2004).

Officer Soto claimed in his arrest report and in plaintiff's trials in municipal and county court that upon plaintiff's exiting the vehicle after being stopped, Soto observed plaintiff to be very unsteady on his feet and observed him to stumble backwards and almost trip on a curb in a parking lot.[5] Soto further claimed that plaintiff was argumentative, his speech was heavily slurred, his pupils were dilated, and he reeked of an intoxicating liquor on his person and his breath. Soto requested plaintiff to submit to a breath analysis, but plaintiff refused, and he further refused to submit to a field sobriety test, leaving the officer with no alternative but to arrest plaintiff and transport him to jail.

For his part, plaintiff notes the video of the stop belies Soto's claim that plaintiff was unsteady on his feet or tripped on a curb. In fact, Soto admitted in his deposition that after reviewing the video, he realized that his testimony that plaintiff was unsteady and that he stumbled or tripped was inconsistent with the video and was "a mistake" on his part. Soto has continued to maintain that plaintiff's speech was slurred, that his eyes were bloodshot, dilated and glassy, and that his clothing and breath smelled strongly of alcohol. Plaintiff, on the other hand, has consistently denied that he had consumed any alcohol on the night/morning in question; and while he admits that his clothing smelled of alcohol since his date spilled a drink on him ...

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