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Ellis v. Vance

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division

January 3, 2017




         This 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.

         This 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.”[1] [Vance depo. at 29; Plaintiff's depo. at 51].

         The 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.”[2] [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.

         On 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 follows:

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.

         [Plaintiff's 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 assault.

         Plaintiff's 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.

         [Darlene White depo. at 10-11]. In describing the manner in which plaintiff confronted his wife, Charles White testified that plaintiff:

[G]ot up there in the street hollering and screaming “You want to whoop my ass?[3]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.

         [Charles White depo. at 12].

         Charles 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.[4] [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].

         In his 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.

         [Vance depo. at 19].

         Judge 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 law.

         Deputy Kenneth White

         Each 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.

         As a 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.

         Plaintiff 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 in question.

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.

         Part of 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).

         In 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 clearly improper.

         In 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 case.

         Having 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).

         While 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.

         In 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 that:

A: I'm sorry. I was shaking my head. I got marbles up there, you know. No, I don't remember this.

         [Plaintiff's 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.

         [Plaintiff's deposition at 14].

         Clearly, 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 events.

         While 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.

         In this 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.

         [Deputy 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.

         While 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.

         [Plaintiff's deposition at 56].

         In the 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.

         Even 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.”[5] 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 vehicles.
Q: Okay. So did you try to go up to the jail and see your mom?
A: I called.
Q: Okay. And what was that conversation like?
A: “We are booking her. You'll have to try back later.”
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 ...

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