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Jordan v. Wayne County

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Eastern Division

May 17, 2017




         For the reasons below, the Court grants in part and denies in part Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [28]. The Court grants the motion with respect to Plaintiff's First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection claims, but the Court denies it in all other respects. The Court also denies Plaintiff's Motion to Strike [33] as moot.

         I. Background

         This is a Section 1983 case arising from a traffic stop and search of a vehicle. On or about March 14, 2016, Defendant Jody Ashley, the Sheriff of Wayne County, Mississippi, initiated a traffic stop of Plaintiff's vehicle. Defendant claimed that Plaintiff has swerved and/or crossed the center line. During the traffic stop, Defendant asserted that he needed to search the vehicle, but Plaintiff declined to consent, and asked why Defendant needed to search his vehicle. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant then threatened to arrest him if he did not consent to a search. Other officers were present, including narcotics agents of the City of Waynesboro, Mississippi. One of the City narcotics agents took Plaintiff aside to speak with him. After a brief conversation, Plaintiff acquiesced to the search. Officers searched his vehicle, found nothing, and the traffic stop concluded.

         Plaintiff filed this suit against Wayne County, Mississippi, and Sheriff Jody Ashley in both his individual and official capacities. Plaintiff believes that Defendant Ashley initiated the traffic stop in retaliation for Plaintiff's failure to support him in the most recent election. Plaintiff claims that Defendants violated a variety of his constitutional rights. Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [28], which the Court now addresses.

         II. Standard of Review

         Rule 56 provides that “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Sierra Club, Inc. v. Sandy Creek Energy Assocs., L.P., 627 F.3d 134, 138 (5th Cir. 2010). “An issue is material if its resolution could affect the outcome of the action.” Sierra Club, Inc., 627 F.3d at 138. “An issue is ‘genuine' if the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Cuadra v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., 626 F.3d 808, 812 (5th Cir. 2010).

         The Court is not permitted to make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Deville v. Marcantel, 567 F.3d 156, 164 (5th Cir. 2009). When deciding whether a genuine fact issue exists, “the court must view the facts and the inference to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Sierra Club, Inc., 627 F.3d at 138. However, “[c]onclusional allegations and denials, speculation, improbable inferences, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic argumentation do not adequately substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial.” Oliver v. Scott, 276 F.3d 736, 744 (5th Cir. 2002).

         III. Discussion

         A. Conceded Claims

         First, Plaintiff conceded his First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection claims. Therefore, the Court grants Defendants' motion as to those claims against both Defendants.

         B. Individual Capacity Claims Against Defendant Ashley

         Next, Defendant Ashley argues that he is entitled to qualified immunity against Plaintiff's claims against him in his individual capacity. “The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009). “Although nominally a defense, the plaintiff has the burden to negate the defense once properly raised.” Poole v. Shreveport, 691 F.3d 624, 627 (5th Cir. 2012).

         There are two steps in the Court's analysis. First, the Court determines whether the defendant's “conduct violates an actual constitutional right.” Brumfield v. Hollins, 551 F.3d 322, 326 (5th Cir. 2008). Second, the Court must “consider whether [the defendant's] actions were objectively unreasonable in the light of clearly established law at the time of the conduct in question.” Id. The Court may address either step first. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236. “The qualified immunity standard gives ample room for mistaken judgments by protecting all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Brumfield, 551 F.3d at 326. The Court “applies an objective standard based on the viewpoint of a reasonable official in light of the information then available to the defendant and the law that was clearly established at the time of the defendant's actions.” Freeman v. Gore, 483 F.3d 404, 411 (5th Cir. 2007). Each Defendant's “entitlement to qualified immunity must be considered on an individual basis.” Randle v. Lockwood, No. 16-50393, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 20326, at *11 n. 7 (5th Cir. Nov. 10, 2016) (citing Meadours v. Ermel, 483 F.3d 417, 421-22 (5th Cir. 2007)).

         1. Fourth Amendment - Initial Stop

         Plaintiff claims that Defendant's initial traffic stop of his vehicle violated his Fourth Amendment rights. “The stopping of a vehicle and detention of its occupants constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.” United States v. Brigham, 382 F.3d 500, 506 (5th Cir. 2004). Traffic stops are examined pursuant to the framework provided in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). Id. Under 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. The “touchstone of the analysis is reasonableness, ” and the Court must “consider the facts and circumstances of each case, giving due regard to the experience and training of law enforcement officers, to determine whether the actions taken by the officers, including the length of the detention, were reasonable under the circumstances.” Id. at 507.

         “The police can stop and briefly detain a person for investigative purposes if the officer has a reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that criminal activity may be afoot . . . .” Turner v. Driver, 848 F.3d 678, 690 (5th Cir. 2017). The officer is required to have a “particularized and objective basis for suspecting legal wrongdoing . . . .” Id. The Court “will find that [reasonable suspicion] existed if the officer was aware of facts justifying a reasonable belief that an offense was being committed, whether or not the officer charged the arrestee with that specific offense.” Club Retro LLC v. Hilton, 568 F.3d 181, 204 (5th Cir. 2009); see also Davidson v. City of Stafford, 848 F.3d 384, 391-92 (5th Cir. 2017). Therefore, the reasonable suspicion “may be for any crime and is not limited to the crime that the officers subjectively considered at the time they perform an arrest.” Davidson, 848 F.3d at 392. However, “[t]he facts must be known to the officer at the time of the arrest; post-hoc justifications based on facts later learned cannot support an earlier arrest.” Club Retro, 568 F.3d at 204. The Court may “consider only the information available to the officer at the time of the decision to stop a person.” Turner, 848 F.3d at 691.

         a. Careless Driving

         Defendant argues that the initial stop was constitutionally permissible because he had reasonable suspicion that Plaintiff had committed a crime. First, he claims that Plaintiff crossed the road's center line in violation of Miss. Code Ann. § 63-3-1213's prohibition of careless driving. Defendant testified that he witnessed Plaintiff's truck cross the center line of Azalea Drive in Waynesboro, Mississippi. Exhibit A to Motion for Summary Judgment at 1, Jordan v. Wayne County, Miss., No. 2:16-CV-70-KS-MTP (S.D.Miss. Apr. 3, 2017), ECF No. 28-1; Exhibit B to Motion for Summary Judgment at 5, Jordan v. Wayne County, Miss., No. 2:16-CV-70-KS-MTP (S.D.Miss. Apr. 3, 2017), ECF No. 28-2. Likewise, Defendant's passenger, Steve Smith, testified that he observed Plaintiff's truck “swerve and generally drive in a careless manner. Specifically, the Ford pickup crossed the center line of Azalea Drive.” Exhibit D to Motion for Summary Judgment at 1, Jordan v. Wayne County, Miss., No. 2:16-CV-70-KS-MTP (S.D.Miss. Apr. 3, 2017), ECF No. 28-4. However, Plaintiff testified that he never swerved or ...

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