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Britton v. Southaven Police Department

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

May 30, 2017




         This matter comes before the court on the pro se prisoner complaint of Meika DeSean Britton, who challenges the conditions of his confinement under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. For the purposes of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the court notes that the plaintiff was incarcerated when he filed this suit. The plaintiff has brought the instant case under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides a federal cause of action against “[e]very person” who under color of state authority causes the “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The plaintiff, who was a parolee at the time, alleges that the defendants searched his cellular telephone without probable cause. The defendants have moved for summary judgment, and the plaintiff has responded. The plaintiff has filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, to which the defendants have not responded. The matter is ripe for resolution. For the reasons set forth below, the motion by the defendants for summary judgment will be granted; the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment will be denied, and judgment will be entered for the defendants in all respects.

         Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the “materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials” show 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) and (c)(1). “The moving party must show that if the evidentiary material of record were reduced to admissible evidence in court, it would be insufficient to permit the nonmoving party to carry its burden.” Beck v. Texas State Bd. of Dental Examiners, 204 F.3d 629, 633 (5th Cir. 2000) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 1066 (1988)). After a proper motion for summary judgment is made, the burden shifts to the non-movant to set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2511, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986); Beck, 204 F.3d at 633; Allen v. Rapides Parish School Bd., 204 F.3d 619, 621 (5th Cir. 2000); Ragas v. Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company, 136 F.3d 455, 458 (5th Cir. 1998). Substantive law determines what is material. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted.” Id., at 248. If the non-movant sets forth specific facts in support of allegations essential to his claim, a genuine issue is presented. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 327. “Where the record, taken as a whole, could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986); Federal Savings and Loan, Inc. v. Krajl, 968 F.2d 500, 503 (5thCir. 1992).

         The facts are reviewed drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Allen, 204 F.3d at 621; PYCA Industries, Inc. v. Harrison County Waste Water Management Dist., 177 F.3d 351, 161 (5th Cir. 1999); Banc One Capital Partners Corp. v. Kneipper, 67 F.3d 1187, 1198 (5th Cir. 1995). However, this is so only when there is “an actual controversy, that is, when both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts.” Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994); see Edwards v. Your Credit, Inc., 148 F.3d 427, 432 (5th Cir. 1998). In the absence of proof, the court does not “assume that the nonmoving party could or would prove the necessary facts.” Little, 37 F.3d at 1075 (emphasis omitted).

         The very purpose of summary judgment is to “pierce the pleadings and assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Advisory Committee Note to the 1963 Amendments to Rule 56. Indeed, “[t]he amendment is not intended to derogate from the solemnity of the pleadings[;] [r]ather, it recognizes that despite the best efforts of counsel to make his pleadings accurate, they may be overwhelmingly contradicted by the proof available to his adversary.” Id. The non-moving party (the plaintiff in this case), must come forward with proof to support each element of his claim. The plaintiff cannot meet this burden with “some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1356 (1986), “conclusory allegations, ” Lujan v. National Wildlife Federation, 497 U.S. 871, 871-73, 110 S.Ct. 3177, 3180 (1990), “unsubstantiated assertions, ” Hopper v. Frank, 16 F.3d 92 (5th Cir. 1994), or by a mere “scintilla” of evidence, Davis v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc., 14 F.3d 1082 (5th Cir. 1994). It would undermine the purposes of summary judgment if a party could defeat such a motion simply by “replac[ing] conclusory allegations of the complaint or answer with conclusory allegations of an affidavit.” Lujan, 497 U.S. at 888. In considering a motion for summary judgment, a court must determine whether the non-moving party's allegations are plausible. Matsushita, supra. (emphasis added). “[D]etermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim is context-specific, requiring the reviewing court to draw on its experience and common sense.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009) (discussing plausibility of claim as a requirement to survive a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6)).

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, once the court “has determined the relevant set of facts and drawn all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party to the extent supportable by the record, [the ultimate decision becomes] purely a question of law.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 381 (2007) (emphasis in original). “When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which 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 the motion for summary judgment.” Id. at 380.

         Undisputed Material Facts

         On May 5, 2011, Britton pled guilty to the charge of Child Exploitation and was sentenced to serve five years in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, followed by ten years of post-release supervision under the MDOC. Doc. 63 at 5. Britton was incarcerated until December 2015. On March 16, 2016 a police report was filed by an individual concerned that Britton had inappropriate contact with his 14 year old daughter. Id. at 9. Detective Brannon Rushing of the Southaven Police Department asked the parent for permission to use the daughter's phone and to pose as the daughter to communicate with Britton, and the parent and the minor consented. Id. at 11.

         After beginning his investigation, Detective Rushing discovered Britton was a registered sex offender, and was currently under supervision with MDOC for a ten year period, reporting to Probation Officer Frank Caswell. Id. On March 22, 2016, a juvenile female told Rushing that Britton had given liquor to minor children present at a gathering. Doc. 77 at 16. After several days of communicating, Detective Rushing arranged a meeting with Britton via his probation officer, Frank Caswell. Id. at 11. On March 24, 2016, Britton met with Detective Rushing and Probation Officer Caswell at the MDOC office in Hernando, Mississippi. Id. During the interview, Probation Officer Caswell asked Britton to produce his phone, and Britton stated he did not want Caswell to look in the phone and began to press buttons on the phone. Id. Detective Rushing, worried that Britton could be deleting incriminating evidence, took the phone for evidentiary purposes. Id. at 11-12. Detective Rushing informed Britton he could pick up a receipt for the seized property at the Southaven Police Department. Id.

         On the same date, March 24, 2016, Detective Rushing applied for and obtained a search warrant for the contents of the phone. Id. at 13. A forensic analysis was then performed on the phone and its contents extracted. Id. at 15. On March 28, 2016 Britton was charged and arrested for Child Exploitation and Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor. Id. at 16-19. On April 4, 2016, an Affidavit and Warrant were filed for Violation of Post Release Supervision due to the new charges. Id. at 24-25. Following a revocation hearing, the Circuit Court of DeSoto County, Mississippi, held that Britton had violated the terms of his supervised release, and imposed the remaining ten years of his sentence to be served in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

         Britton's version of the facts in this case differs from the defendants' only slightly. He notes insignificant differences (less than 30 minutes) in the timing of events surrounding his questioning and the seizure of his phone. He also alleges that, when he entered the Hernando building for questioning, he did not have his phone and went to retrieve it only when Caswell and Rushing requested a list of phone numbers. He also seems to dispute whether he was pushing keys on his phone at the time Detective Rushing seized it.


         As discussed below, the plaintiff's case must be dismissed for a variety of reasons. First, as to his claims against Mississippi Department of Corrections personnel, he did not, prior to filing suit, exhaust the grievance process through the Administrative Remedy Program the State has adopted. Second, the plaintiff's claim fails on the merits, as the defendants had ample justification for seizing his phone and searching it for evidence of improper communication with minors. Third, as Bonita Clark had no direct involvement in the seizure and search of the plaintiff's cellular phone, he has been sued her solely in her capacity as supervisor, and a plaintiff cannot sustain a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based upon a respondeat superior theory.

         Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

         Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 42 U.S.C. §1997e et seq.- including its requirement that inmates exhaust their administrative remedies prior to filing suit - in an effort to address the large number of prisoner complaints filed in federal courts. See Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 202 (2007). Congress meant for the exhaustion requirement to be an effective tool to help weed out the frivolous claims from the colorable ones:

Prisoner litigation continues to ‘account for an outsized share of filings' in federal district courts. Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 94, n. 4, 126 S.Ct. 2378 (2006) (slip op., at 12, n.4). In 2005, nearly 10 percent of all civil cases filed in federal courts nationwide were prisoner complaints challenging prison conditions or claiming civil rights violations. Most of these cases have no merit; many are frivolous. Our legal system, however, remains committed to guaranteeing that prisoner claims of illegal conduct by their custodians are fairly handled according to law. The challenge lies in ensuring that the flood of non-meritorious claims does not ...

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