United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division
MICHAEL P. MILLS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
cause comes before the court on the motion of defendants,
pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, for summary judgment. Plaintiff
Stella Ellis has responded in opposition to the motion, and
the court, having considered the memoranda and submissions of
the parties, concludes that the motion is well taken and
should be granted.
is, inter alia, a false arrest case in which
plaintiff contends that she was unlawfully arrested,
convicted and incarcerated for simple assault upon her
neighbor, Darlene White. Plaintiff was convicted of
assaulting Darlene on January 22, 2014 by Calhoun County
Justice Court Judge Jimmy Vance, in a bench trial which was
conducted the very next day after the two neighbors were
arrested for fighting outside their homes at a Calhoun County
trailer park. Judge Vance, who is a defendant in this action,
sentenced plaintiff to six months in jail, with five of those
months suspended, and a fine of $336.75. Vance subsequently
sentenced plaintiff to two thirty-day sentences for contempt,
the first for “screaming” in court that she would
“never” pay the fine and the second for referring
to Vance, in plaintiff's recollection, as “a dirty
old judge.” [Vance depo. at 29; Plaintiff's depo.
arrest of the neighbors for assaulting each other represented
the culmination of a lengthy feud between the two women, as
well as Darlene's husband Charles White. The feud
centered around whether a large oak tree represents the
boundary line between the Ellis and White properties. The
plaintiff, Stella Ellis, claims the tree as the property
line. The Whites disagree. This old oak tree served as the
focal point for the neighbors' arguments. Plaintiff
contends that her neighbors threatened to burn it down. She
testified in her deposition that she found the behavior of
Charles White to be particularly objectionable, and she
asserts that she called the sheriff's department on
Charles dozens of times for “cussing and hollering and
raising cane” as well as making threats and
“starting fires.” [Plaintiff's depo. at 15].
Plaintiff complains that, frequently, the sheriff's
department refused to respond to her 911 calls and even
threatened to arrest her if she continued to make them.
January 21, 2014, the dispute among the neighbors reached,
for the first time, the point of a physical confrontation.
This altercation began as the Whites had pulled up their
vehicle and were unloading firewood in a location (under the
disputed tree) which plaintiff found to be objectionable. In
her deposition, plaintiff admitted that she was highly
agitated by what she saw as a provocation by her neighbors,
and she concedes that she confronted them about it. In her
deposition, plaintiff described the January 21 altercation as
Well, I went out the door and I was mad, and I told them they
wasn't going to do it and to get their truck off of my
land and away from my trailer. And we got all this videotaped
and everything. And we got into an argument. And so Darlene
winds up - me and Darlene winds up in the road, in the city
street here. And Darlene just politely beats me up. So I
called the law. And the law comes down there and he arrests
me and Darlene. And I told him, I said “I didn't do
nothing.” And I didn't. I didn't hit the girl.
I didn't do nothing. I just stood there and took my
beating and called the cops. And we both wind up in jail.
depo. at 28-29]. After interviewing plaintiff and her
neighbors, the responding deputies concluded that a mutual
fight had occurred, and they arrested both women for simple
neighbors testified that plaintiff deliberately provoked the
fight. Specifically, Darlene testified that:
A: We had been to the doctor, to dentist, and we come in with
a load of firewood. And Charles had backed the pickup down.
And before he even got the truck cut off, she was out there
beating on the hood of the truck, cussing, threatening to
kill us, threatening to blow our brains out. And you know, we
were just trying to ignore her. *** And she kept trying to
provoke Charles to fight. She had even poked him in the chest
with her finger, you know, a time or two. *** And I told him,
you know, wasn't no need in all the fighting and stuff.
If we are going to fight, you know, to fight. You know, just
quit all this mess. Or she had said something about fighting.
I don't remember who said something about it first. And
she went up on in the road. You know, it was a public street
where it happened. She had went on up in the road. And I
followed her up in the road.
Q: So did she - did she - who touched who first?
A: I don't know. She was already drawed up to hit me when
I got there. I don't know whether she hit me first or I
hit her first.
White depo. at 10-11]. In describing the manner in which
plaintiff confronted his wife, Charles White testified that
[G]ot up there in the street hollering and screaming
“You want to whoop my ass?Just come on up here, ”
and everything like that. “Your mama is this and your
mama is that.” And my wife just done absolutely had a
damn belly full of it.
White depo. at 12].
White's story about which woman struck the other first
has changed greatly since plaintiff's arrest and
conviction. At a probable cause hearing the morning after the
fight, Charles initially testified before Calhoun County
Justice Court Judge Mark Ferguson that plaintiff had struck
his wife first. [Charles White depo. at 15]. Judge
Ferguson apparently found Charles' account believable and
issued a warrant for plaintiff's arrest. Charles gave
this same testimony at a bench trial that same day before
Judge Vance, who, as noted previously, found plaintiff guilty
of simple assault. The parties appear to agree that it was
highly unusual to have a trial on the same day as plaintiff
was arrested, but they disagree regarding who is responsible
for this occurring. Judge Vance, supported by an affidavit
from the prosecutor, testified that plaintiff insisted on
having a trial that same day, even though she was informed
that she did not have to do so. [Vance Depo. at 23; Tina
Scott affidavit at 1]. Plaintiff denies this assertion and
maintains that she was forced to go to trial that day,
without having first been advised of her right to counsel.
[Plaintiff's depo. at 40-41].
deposition, Judge Vance conceded that, at trial, plaintiff
raised the existence of a video of the altercation which, she
contended, would exonerate her. [Vance Depo. at 19]. This
video was made as part of a homemade surveillance system set
up and maintained by plaintiff's daughter Melanie Fuller.
Plaintiff testified that she did not know how to retrieve
video from the surveillance system, and she contends that
jail administrators denied her permission to call her
daughter and tell her to retrieve it and bring it to court.
[Plaintiff's depo. at 56]. Fuller testified in her own
deposition, however, that she had learned that her mother
would be in court by talking to local officials after
plaintiff had called her immediately following the
altercation. [Fuller depo. at 10-12]. Fuller testified that
she retrieved the video on the day of the fight and tried to
make it to her mother's court hearing on time but was
unable to do so due to personal issues. [Id.] As a
result, the video evidence was not shown at trial and Judge
Vance found her guilty without seeing it. In explaining his
decision to find plaintiff guilty without viewing the video
evidence, Judge Vance testified that:
Q: Well - did she mention this video before you found her
guilty or not? A: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. But we were already
into the trial. She said she was prepared to go with it, and
she wanted to get it behind her.
depo. at 19].
Vance conceded in his deposition that, soon after he rendered
his guilty verdict, Fuller came to his chambers and urged him
to look at the video evidence but that he refused to do so
“because we were not at court.” [Id.]
While Judge Vance thus declined to look at the video, the
court hearing plaintiff's appeal did so, and it
overturned her conviction on the basis of that evidence. The
exculpatory nature of the video can also be observed from the
fact that Charles White, contrary to his initial testimony,
now concedes that plaintiff did not actually strike his wife
first. Unfortunately for plaintiff, that exoneration did not
come until after she had served her sentence for assault.
Aggrieved at having served a sentence for an offense she
(apparently) did not commit, plaintiff filed the instant
§ 1983 action against Judge Vance and various other
governmental defendants involved in her arrest, conviction
and incarceration. These defendants have presently moved for
summary judgment, contending that no genuine issue of fact
exists regarding plaintiff's right to recover against
them and that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of
the five defendants in this case have filed motions for
summary judgment, but this court will begin with that of
Deputy Kenneth White, since he was the first of the
defendants to encounter plaintiff. In considering this
defendant's motion, this court will begin with a point
which should be obvious but which it believes worthy of
emphasis. In considering plaintiff's claim against Deputy
White, this court should consider only that defendant's
own actions, based on the facts he had available to him at
the time. In this case, there is good reason to believe that
plaintiff may have suffered a wrongful conviction and
incarceration, based on certain events which had nothing to
do with Deputy White. For example, considering the manner in
which Charles White changed his story after learning of
plaintiff's video evidence, it appears that he may have
offered perjured, or at least seriously mistaken, testimony
in this case. Moreover, this court believes, as discussed
below, that Judge Vance committed a serious error in judgment
in refusing to view the video evidence which was brought to
his attention both before and after he convicted plaintiff
and sentenced her to jail.
private citizen, Charles White faces no liability under
§ 1983, and, as discussed below, Judge Vance enjoys
absolute judicial immunity for any mistakes he made in
convicting plaintiff. While these facts may mean that
plaintiff lacks an effective remedy under federal law for the
wrongful conviction she suffered, they should not lead this
court to hold Deputy White responsible for something he did
not do. Likewise, these facts should not lead this court to
disregard the well-established legal standards applicable to
officers such as Deputy White, in a misguided attempt to find
someone to hold accountable for a wrongful conviction. The
Fourth Amendment offers protection against
“unreasonable” searches and seizures, and, in
applying those protections to police officers, the U.S.
Supreme Court has recognized that officers are frequently
forced to make split-second decisions and judgment calls that
courts should not be overly eager to second-guess from
isolated judicial chambers. It is entirely appropriate that
this court apply this approach as to Deputy White,
notwithstanding any breakdowns which may have occurred in the
judicial system after he arrested plaintiff. With these
considerations in mind, this court will now proceed to the
substance of Deputy White's motion.
has asserted unlawful arrest claims against Deputy White in
his individual capacity, and, in response, he has raised the
defense of qualified immunity. In considering this defense,
this court applies the Fifth Circuit's qualified immunity
standard, which it has described as follows:
This court applies a two-step analysis to determine whether a
defendant is entitled to summary judgment on the basis of
qualified immunity. First, we determine whether, viewing the
summary judgment evidence in the light most favorable to the
plaintiff, the defendant violated the plaintiff's
constitutional rights. If the evidence viewed in the light
most favorable to Appellees demonstrates that a
constitutional violation occurred, we next consider whether
the defendant's actions were objectively unreasonable in
light of clearly established law at the time of the conduct
Freeman v. Gore, 483 F.3d 404, 410-11 (5th Cir.
2007). Thus, the first prong of the qualified immunity test
asks whether the defendant violated one of the
plaintiff's constitutional rights, and the second asks if
the right in question was “clearly established”
at the time of the officer's actions.
the power of the qualified immunity doctrine arises from the
fact that it must simply be raised as a defense by a
defendant, and the plaintiff has the burden of establishing
the proof and arguments necessary to overcome it. See
Pierce v. Smith, 117 F.3d 866, 871-72 (5th Cir. 1997)
(noting that the plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating
that an individual defendant is not entitled to
qualified immunity). While the qualified immunity standard is
thus quite favorable to defendants, this court also
recognizes that, at the summary judgment stage, it must
consider the facts in the light most favorable to the
plaintiff, as the non-moving party. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme
Court has recently emphasized that district courts are
required to “draw inferences in favor of the
nonmovant, even when . . . a court decides only the
clearly-established prong” of the qualified immunity
standard. Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866, 188
L.Ed.2d 895 (2014).
light of the foregoing, this court will consider the facts of
this case in the light most favorable to plaintiff, but it
must emphasize that, to survive a qualified immunity defense,
it is incumbent upon her to do the “heavy
lifting” of presenting federal authority in support of
her claim. Time and again in her briefing, plaintiff fails to
do so. Indeed, the distinction between the first and second
prongs of the qualified immunity standard is rather blurred
in this case due to the fact that, in her briefing, plaintiff
repeatedly fails to offer federal authority arising in
factual circumstances even remotely analogous to those here.
For example, in her briefing relating to Sheriff Pollan,
plaintiff offers state law authority which, she
contends, establishes vicarious liability on the part of that
defendant under Mississippi law. [Plaintiff's brief at
8]. Defendants correctly argue that such state law is simply
irrelevant for the purposes of establishing liability under
federal law, but, time and again, plaintiff seeks to offer
such authority in lieu of federal authority on point. This is
asserting claims against Deputy White, plaintiff does offer
some federal authority, but, as discussed in this court's
analysis of the second prong, it is exceedingly vague and
sheds little light on the question of whether White may have
violated the Fourth Amendment under facts even reasonably
similar to those in this case. As discussed below,
plaintiff's failure to offer more specific authority
means that she is unable to establish the “clearly
established” prong of the qualified immunity test, but
it also makes it exceedingly difficult for her to establish
that a Fourth Amendment violation occurred at all in this
said that, this court does agree that the basic probable
cause standard provides a useful, and necessary, starting
point for a discussion of Deputy White's actions in this
case. For example, it is well settled that the question of
whether her arrest in this case was legal “hinges on
the absence of probable cause.” Soreson v.
Ferrie, 134 F.3d 325, 328 (5th Cir. 2008). It is
similarly clear that “[p]robable cause exists when the
totality of the 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.”
Deville v. Marcantel, 567 F.3d 156, 164 (5th Cir.
2009). Moreover, while Mississippi law does not determine
whether the Fourth Amendment was violated in this case, the
nature of the offense for which plaintiff was arrested is, in
fact, relevant in an unlawful arrest case. In this vein, this
court notes that plaintiff was arrested for simple assault on
her neighbor, and Mississippi statutory law provides that:
(1)(a) A person is guilty of simple assault if he (i)
attempts to cause or purposely, knowingly or recklessly
causes bodily injury to another; (ii) negligently causes
bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon or other means
likely to produce death or serious bodily harm; or (iii)
attempts by physical menace to put another in fear of
imminent serious bodily harm; and, upon conviction, he shall
be punished by a fine of not more than Five Hundred Dollars
($500.00) or by imprisonment in the county jail for not more
than six (6) months, or both.
Miss. Code. Ann. § 97-3-7(1)(a).
the basic probable cause standard and the relevant
Mississippi criminal statute are clear enough, they provide
little guidance to this court in determining whether Deputy
White may have violated the Fourth Amendment based on the
circumstances present in this case. From reviewing
plaintiff's arguments, her theory that Deputy White
violated the Fourth Amendment in this case seems to hinge
primarily upon her allegations that 1) he failed to view the
exculpatory video of the altercation in this case prior to
arresting her and 2) the remaining evidence which was
available to Depute White, in particular witness statements
from Darlene White and her husband, was insufficient to lead
a reasonable officer to believe that probable cause existed
to arrest her.
considering Deputy White's actions in arresting
plaintiff, this court emphasizes once again that it must give
plaintiff all reasonable inferences regarding disputed facts
in the record. At the same time, this court believes that, in
this case, it may be legitimately questioned just how much
weight plaintiff's own self-serving testimony will bear.
In so concluding, the court notes that plaintiff's own
testimony appears to impeach her reliability as a witness.
For example, when asked in her deposition about a 1995
malicious mischief charge against her, plaintiff testified
A: I'm sorry. I was shaking my head. I got marbles up
there, you know. No, I don't remember this.
deposition at 27]. Morever, when asked about a court
appearance involving her property line dispute with her
neighbors, plaintiff testified that:
A: And we did come to court and stuff over it. They never
could prove that they owned it. I never did prove that I
owned it. But we did come to court. And Judge Ferguson
thought we were crazy, which we are, so it wasn't far
from wrong, and anyway. The trailer is still sitting there.
deposition at 14].
plaintiff's reference to having “marbles in her
head, ” being “crazy” and not being able to
remember prior criminal charges against her does not enhance
her credibility as a witness. This court further notes that
the record is replete with disputed issues of fact which come
down to plaintiff's word against those of multiple other
witnesses. To give merely one example, plaintiff denied in
her deposition that she insisted on going to trial the day
after she was arrested, even though the Justice Court judge
and the prosecuting attorney both unequivocally stated, in
sworn statements, that she did so. It is not clear to this
court why a prosecutor who is not a defendant in this action
would lie about this issue, and it thus has serious
reservations about the accuracy of plaintiff's version of
this court thus considers it important to note, for the
record, its reservations about plaintiff's credibility,
it will nevertheless err on the side of determining disputed
facts in her favor.
case, Deputy White and plaintiff provide very different
accounts of information at his disposal when he decided to
arrest plaintiff for simple assault. With regard to the video
of the incident, defendant Deputy White testified that:
Q: When you arrived on the scene and were speaking with Ms.
Ellis, did you take the opportunity to view the video
recording at that point in time?
A: At that time I did not know there was a video.
White depo. at 8]. While Deputy White thus appeared to deny
knowledge of the video, plaintiff testified that she informed
him of it, and this court will assume that she is testifying
accurately on this issue.
this court will thus impute knowledge of the existence of a
video to Deputy White, it considers it important to consider
the nature of that evidence. This is not a case where
plaintiff had, say, video on a smartphone which she was
prepared to show the deputies and which could be readily
viewed by them. If it were, then this court believes that
plaintiff would have a stronger argument that Deputy White
acted unreasonably in arresting her without first watching
it. In reality, however, plaintiff testified in her
deposition that she told the officers to watch the video she
recorded of the incident, even though she acknowledged that
she did not know how to retrieve the video herself:
Q: Because it looks like you're pointing back to your
trailer. What are you telling them at that point?
A: To watch the video; that I can't watch the video
because I don't know how it works, but if they will back
it up and look at it, they'll know I didn't hit her.
I tried to get them to back it up and look at it.
deposition at 56].
court's view, plaintiff's concession that she was
unable to watch the video herself considerably weakens her
argument that Deputy White violated the Fourth Amendment by
arresting her without watching it himself. Plaintiff
testified that the video was the product of a makeshift home
surveillance system set up and maintained by her daughter
Melanie Fuller, upon whom she relied to retrieve recordings.
Plaintiff further testified that it was not until she had
already been found guilty that Fuller brought the video to
Judge Vance in an (unsuccessful) attempt to have him watch
it. Once again, Deputy White denied even knowing at the time
that a video of the incident existed, but, accepting
plaintiff's testimony as accurate, it seems quite
unreasonable for her to have expected arresting officers to
have greater knowledge of the workings of her own home video
system than she did. In this vein, this court notes that
there are many forms of evidence which are better collected
by experienced crime scene technicians, or, barring that,
private individuals with the expertise to properly collect
it. It appears to this court that the (apparently complex)
video surveillance system described in plaintiff's
testimony falls in the latter category, since her daughter
was the one who set it up and who had the expertise to
retrieve video from it.
assuming that this court's understanding of the nature of
plaintiff's video system is inaccurate, the fact remains
that she testified that she told deputies things
which might lead a reasonable officer in Deputy White's
position to conclude that the evidence was complex and should
be retrieved by experienced individuals. That aside, the fact
remains that Fuller testified that she did, in fact, retrieve
the exonerating video on the same day that plaintiff was
arrested. Moreover, Fuller testified that she was informed
that her mother would likely be in court the next day and
that she “attempted to get there on time, but was
late.” This court will quote from Fuller's
deposition testimony on this issue at length:
Q: Okay. So just take me through the day and what happened
that day. ***
A: It was a normal day for me, and then, all of a sudden, my
mother calls me again and says, “I'm probably
fixing to end up going to jail because I've called 911
because Darlene assaulted me, ” or “hit me and
pulled my hair, ” I think, was her words. And we
talked. And then the law come up so we hung up. And I got my
three-year old daughter, my twenty-one year old son and
myself, and we headed to my mother's from Vardaman.
Q: Okay. And what happened when you got here?
A: Nobody was around so we went in, backup up the security
system, and watched the front camera, and we seen what the
altercation was and that the officers had took both in their
Q: Okay. So did you try to go up to the jail and see your
A: I called.
Q: Okay. And what was that conversation like?
A: “We are booking her. You'll have to try back
Q: Okay. What time was that, do you think?
A: Hmmm. Around twelve or maybe a little bit after, but, -
Q: Okay. So did you try to call back later?
A: Yes, ma'am.
Q: And what response did you ...