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Pitts v. City of Madison County

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

December 4, 2017




         This cause is before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendants City of Madison, Mississippi; Investigator Cole Terrell; and Chief Gene Waldrop (collectively, the “Madison Defendants”), Docket No. 48, and on the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, filed by Plaintiff Joanne Pitts, Docket No. 73. The Motions are fully briefed and ready for adjudication.

         I. Facts and Procedure

         On the night of May 1, 2014, Joanne Pitts and her brother Jeremy Shedd were driving separately on Highway 463 in Madison County. Pitts was in a red Chevrolet truck, and Shedd was in a gray Honda Accord. Both vehicles were owned by Pitts.

         City of Madison Investigator Cole Terrell observed the Honda traveling at a very low rate of speed and swerving between lanes. He conducted a traffic stop. Terrell then smelled marijuana and asked Shedd to exit the car. A pat down search of Shedd yielded a clear tube of crystal methamphetamine and a small plastic bag containing marijuana. Terell arrested Shedd. After Shedd was taken into custody, Pitts' Honda was searched and seized.[1]

         Around the same time Shedd was stopped, Agent Clark conducted a traffic stop of the Chevrolet. Clark identified the driver as Pitts, who admitted that she and Shedd often used drugs at her home and that Shedd regularly used her Honda to transport drugs.[2] Pitts gave consent for officers to search her home for drugs and was arrested based on an outstanding warrant.[3] Officers subsequently searched her home and found various drugs and drug paraphernalia. Pitts was charged with possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia.[4]

         Later that night, Investigator Terrell served both Pitts and Shedd with a Notice of Intention to Forfeit Seized Property regarding the Honda. The notice instructed that Pitts and Shedd had 30 days to file a petition for judicial review or the Honda would be forfeited to the Madison Police Department. A petition was never filed. On June 23, 2014, MPD issued a Declaration of Forfeiture.

         In July 2015, Pitts filed this action in the Madison County Circuit Court. She brought state claims of civil conspiracy and conversion. In November 2015, she amended her complaint to include constitutional violations under Section 1983. The action was properly removed to this Court pursuant to federal question jurisdiction.

         The Madison Defendants now seek summary judgment on all claims. Pitts also seeks partial summary judgment on her Fourteenth Amendment claim, as well as other claims not included in her Amended Complaint. Specifically, she claims that the Madison Defendants violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment and the Mississippi Constitution and that the Madison Police Department, as a non-entity incapable of being sued, improperly sought and obtained title to her Honda.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment is appropriate when “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). The moving party bears the initial burden of identifying the basis for its motion and the portions of the record that support it. Nola Spice Designs, L.L.C. v. Haydel Enters., Inc., 783 F.3d 527, 536 (5th Cir. 2015). “Once a summary judgment motion is made and properly supported, the nonmovant must go beyond the pleadings and designate specific facts in the record showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Wallace v. Tex. Tech Univ., 80 F.3d 1042, 1047 (5th Cir. 1996).

         When considering a summary judgment motion, the court “must view all facts and evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Juino v. Livingston Parish Fire Dist. No. 5, 717 F.3d 431, 433 (5th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted). But “[u]nsubstantiated assertions, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation are not sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment.” Brown v. City of Houston, 337 F.3d 539, 541 (5th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted).

         B. Qualified Immunity

         Qualified immunity “protects government officials from liability from 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 (2009) (quotation marks and citation omitted). In other words, “qualified immunity generally protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Good v. Curtis, 601 F.3d 393, 400 (5th Cir. 2010). “When a defendant invokes qualified immunity, the burden is on the plaintiff to demonstrate the inapplicability of the defense.” McClendon v. City of Columbia, 305 F.3d 314, 323 (5th Cir. 2002).

         To determine whether an official is entitled to qualified immunity, the court must determine: “(1) whether an official's conduct violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights, and (2) whether the right violated was clearly established at the time of the violation.” Poole v. City of Shreveport, 691 F.3d 624, 637 (5th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). “For a right to be clearly established under the second step of the qualified immunity analysis, the contours of that right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.” Bishop v. Arcuri, 674 F.3d 456, 466 (5th Cir. 2012). “The defendant's acts are held to be objectively reasonable unless all reasonable officials in the defendant's circumstances would have then known that the defendant's conduct violated the United States Constitution.” Thompson v. Upshur Cty., Tex., 245 F.3d 447, 457 (5th Cir. 2001).

         III. Discussion

         A. Section 1983 Claims against Investigator Terrell

         The parties discuss at great length the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizure and the Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process.[5] Each will be considered below.

         1. Fourth Amendment

         Pitts argues that the search and seizure of her Honda-the vehicle being driven by her brother-were unlawful because the traffic stop was “pretextual.”[6] Investigator Terrell contends that the stop, search, and seizure were valid under the Fourth Amendment. The Court agrees with Terrell.

         a. Standing

         As an initial matter, Investigator Terrell asserts that Pitts “lacks standing to raise a constitutional claim” regarding the initial stop of the Honda. Docket No. 79 at 2. He cites no authority to support this contention.

         A vehicle owner's Fourth Amendment interest in his vehicle is not limited to police intrusions occurring only while he is present. See United States v. Kye Soo Lee, 898 F.2d 1034, 1038 (5th Cir. 1990) (holding that the renter of a truck had standing to challenge the search of locked cargo while the truck was operated by others). Though Pitts was not present during the traffic stop, she maintained a reasonable expectation of privacy when she lent her car to her brother and therefore has standing.

         b. Initial Traffic Stop

         In Whren v. United States, the Supreme Court held that a traffic stop, even if pretextual, does not violate the Fourth Amendment if an officer has “probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.” 517 U.S. 806, 810 (1996). “[P]robable cause to make a traffic stop exists, inter alia, when a defendant commits a traffic violation and a law-enforcement officer observes the violation.” United States v. Rosales-Giron, 592 F. App'x 246, 251 (5th Cir. 2014).

         Investigator Terrell pulled over Shedd for careless driving, a violation of Mississippi law.[7] “[A] court must reasonably interpret a wide range of factors when determining carelessness under the careless-driving statute.” Id. “Mississippi's careless-driving statute is broadly worded to encompass drivers who fail to exercise due regard for the width . . . of the streets and highways.” Id; see, e.g., Henderson v. State, 878 So.2d 246, 247 (Miss. Ct. App. 2004) (determining that “swerving off the side of the road or crossing the marker lines constitutes probable cause for a traffic stop”); Saucier v. City of Poplarville, 858 So.2d 933, 934 (Miss. Ct. App. 2003) (finding probable cause where a vehicle decreased its speed, “bump[ed] the centerline, ” then crossed “into the center lane and jerked . . . back into the right lane”).

         In his incident report, Terrell states that he observed the Honda “traveling at a very low rate of speed in a 45 mph zone” and “swerv[ing] from side to side, each time crossing over into the other lane.” Docket No. 73-2 at 7.[8] His observations constituted probable cause to make a traffic stop.

         c. Search

         “Warrantless searches are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, subject to a few specific exceptions.” United States v. Samuels, 628 F. App'x 322, 322 (5th Cir. 2016) (citing Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 219 (1973)). In this case, the defense argues that two exceptions validated the warrantless search of Pitts' car: (1) Investigator Terrell had probable cause to believe the car ...

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