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Burnett v. Hinds County

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

September 21, 2017




         Before the Court is the defendants' motion for summary judgment. Docket No. 80. The motion has been fully briefed, and the Court is ready to rule.

         Murphy Burnett filed this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, and 1986 for alleged deprivation of and conspiracy to interfere with his civil rights. He also brought state law claims. Burnett named several entities and individuals as defendants. Those defendants relevant to this motion are the City of Jackson and two of its police officers, Detective Patricia Wilder and Officer Cedric Myles, in their official and individual capacities (collectively referred to as “the Jackson Defendants”).

         The allegations have been discussed in this Court's prior Orders, but the harms for which Burnett seeks redress stem from his wrongful arrest, indictment, and nearly three-year detention for alleged sexual battery, rape, kidnapping, and armed carjacking. See Burnett v. Hinds Cty. ex rel. Bd. of Sup'rs, No. 3:14-CV-651-CWR-FKB, 2015 WL 5785562, at *4 (S.D.Miss. Sept. 11, 2015). Exculpatory DNA evidence eventually caused the Hinds County District Attorney to dismiss all charges.

         The Jackson Defendants now seek summary judgment on the § 1983 and state law claims.[1] The familiar summary judgment standard applies. See Hill v. Hinds County, Miss., No. 3:12-CV-880-CWR-FKB, 2015 WL 1014305, at *2 (S.D.Miss. Mar. 9, 2015). Each claim will be taken in turn.

         I. Section 1983 Claims against the City of Jackson

         Burnett argues that the City of Jackson failed to train its police officers to properly identify suspects. This lack of training, he says, led to his illegal arrest and detention for a crime he did not commit.

         A municipality can be sued under § 1983 when “the action that is alleged to be unconstitutional implements or executes a policy statement, ordinance, regulation or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body's officers.” Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978). In other words, a plaintiff must show “(1) an official policy (or custom), of which (2) a policymaker can be charged with actual or constructive knowledge, and (3) a constitutional violation whose moving force is that policy or custom.” Valle v. City of Hous., 613 F.3d 536, 541-42 (5th Cir. 2010)

         Here, however, Burnett fails on all fronts. He has not identified a policy; he has not connected a policy to the City of Jackson's policymaker(s); and he has failed to show a constitutional violation that occurred from the execution of a city policy. A municipality can be liable for a custom of inadequately training its police officers. Brown v. Bryan Cty., Okla., 219 F.3d 450, 457 (5th Cir. 2000). “Where a § 1983 plaintiff can establish that the facts available to city policymakers put them on actual or constructive notice that the particular [training] omission is substantially certain to result in the violation of the constitutional rights of their citizens, the dictates of Monell are satisfied.” City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 396 (1989). This is the route Burnett travels to pin liability on the City of Jackson.

         Burnett attempts to establish inadequate training procedures by recapping the criminal investigation that led to his arrest. It began with Officer Fred Nelson using his cell phone to capture still photos of the assailant from surveillance video at the crime scene. After viewing the cell phone photographs, Officer Cedric Myles informed Detective Patricia Wilder that the assailant resembled Burnett, a person with whom Myles was familiar from a previous criminal matter. Officer Myles knew that Burnett lived near the crime scene.

         Burnett contends that Officer Myles should have viewed the original surveillance video before making the identification and not simply relied upon the cell phone photos, which Burnett says were of low quality.

         Officer Myles testified that as a patrolman, after reviewing the photographs, he did all that was required of him. He drafted and sent a supplemental report to the detective (Wilder) tasked with investigating the case. That detective, in turn, pursued leads. Burnett was not arrested until further investigation resulted in the victim picking his mugshot out of a six-person photo line-up. From this testimony, Burnett says, “it appears that Officer Myles and other JPD officers involved . . . suffered from a lack of training in proper and reliable identification of suspects.” Docket No. 112, at 9.

         There are a number of reasons why the Court must reject Burnett's claim. The first is that he puts forth no evidence-such as a training handbook, expert testimony, or best practices-to support his criticism of the JPD's procedures. His personal opinion alone is certainly not enough to cast doubt on the adequacy of the police officers' training.

         Second, to be actionable, the inadequate training must have caused a violation of Burnett's constitutional rights. See Kitchen v. Dall. Cty., Tex., 759 F.3d 468, 483 (5th Cir. 2014) (“As is well established, every Monell claim requires ‘an underlying constitutional ...

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