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Geiger v. Monroe County, Mississippi

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

June 18, 2018




         Monroe County, Mississippi Sheriff Deputies killed Ricky Keeton during the service of a search warrant on his home in the early morning hours of October 28, 2015. Keeton's daughters, Robbie Keeton Geiger, Delisha Keeton Mooney, and Megan Archer filed this lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 against Monroe County, Mississippi and Monroe County Sheriff Deputy Eric Sloan seeking damages for Keeton's death. In their Complaint [1], the Plaintiffs allege that the County and Sloan violated several of Keeton's constitutional rights protected by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

         The County filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [97] requesting summary judgment in its favor on most of the Plaintiffs' claims.[1] Defendant Sloan also filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [99] requesting qualified immunity from all of the Plaintiff's claims, or in the alternative, that the Court grant summary judgment in his favor. These Motions are now fully briefed and ripe for review.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         At all the times relevant to this case, Defendant Sloan was in charge of the narcotics division of the Monroe County Sheriff's Department. Deputy Tony Coxey worked under Sloan in the narcotics division. Sloan and Coxey were investigating Ricky Keeton for about a year prior to his death; the deputies suspected that Keeton was a drug dealer. As part of their investigation, Sloan and Coxey watched Keeton's house trailer from a nearby, concealed location on numerous occasions. On October 27, 2015, Sloan and Coxey were watching Keeton's trailer when they saw a truck that Coxey recognized as belonging to one of his confidential informants leaving Keeton's residence. Sloan and Coxey contacted patrol deputies and asked them to perform a traffic stop on the truck, identify the occupants, and to “see if there was anything illegal in the vehicle.” Patrol deputies were able to perform a traffic stop on the truck and confirm that Terry Parker, a confidential informant that Coxey routinely worked with was the driver. Patrol Officers also found a glass pipe and a small amount of methamphetamine inside the vehicle. After the Patrol Officers stopped Parker, he immediately began asking to speak to Coxey.

         The Patrol Officers contacted Sloan and Coxey, updated them on the results of the traffic stop, and Sloan and Coxey drove to the scene of the stop to talk to Parker. Parker told Sloan and Coxey that he just bought the methamphetamine from Keeton, and that there was a substantial amount of methamphetamine in Keeton's house trailer. Parker also said that Keeton had $20, 000.00 in cash from a large recent drug sale, and that a Hispanic male, Keeton's supplier, would be picking the cash up the following day.

         Based on the information obtained from the informant, Coxey, with at least some help from Sloan, immediately prepared an affidavit and search warrant and took them to Justice Court Judge Robert Fowlkes. Fowlkes approved and signed the warrant. Sloan contacted the members of the SWAT team and asked them to assemble at the Monroe County Government Complex. Once assembled, Sloan and Coxey briefed the other deputies on the layout of Keeton's property, the location of some cameras that they knew Keeton had set up, and the fact that Keeton had several dogs. Around 1:00 A.M. on October 28, 2015 Sloan and Coxey, along with deputies John Michael Lay, Sam Mitchell, John Bishop, David Mitchell, Spencer Woods, Hunter Knight, and Tim Coker drove to the area near Keeton's trailer. The team knew that Keeton had a locked gate blocking the entrance to his driveway so they stopped their vehicles some distance from the gate and lined up to proceed on foot. Sheriff Cecil Cantrell and Deputy Ricky Payne also came to the assembly point near Keeton's trailer, but remained in their vehicle. Chief Deputy Curtis Knight also waited at the assembly point in his own vehicle.

         The team first proceeded to Keeton's front door but decided against attempting to enter there because there were no steps, and the door was several feet above the ground. The team then proceeded around the trailer to the back door that had a set of steps with a small porch enclosed with a railing. Noticing that the back door opened outward, the team planned for Bishop to hit and crease the door with a battering ram so that Mitchell could insert a pry bar near the lock and pry the door open. Bishop and Mitchell positioned themselves on either side of the door with the other team members on or near the steps in a single file “stack” with Sloan at the front, weapons drawn and at the ready.

         Meanwhile, inside the trailer, Keeton and his girlfriend Wanda Stegall were in bed. Keeton woke Stegall up and told her that he thought he heard something outside. Keeton got out of bed and got his pellet pistol that had a flashlight mounted on it. Bishop hit the back door with the ram, deforming it, and Mitchell inserted a pry bar near the lock and began prying the door open.[2] Keeton went to the back door. Either opened from inside by Keeton, or pried open by Mitchell, the door opened approximately two feet and then quickly closed. Sloan offers two different reports as to what he saw while the door was open. In his official statement, Sloan states “Immediately [when the door opened] I hear a male yelling ‘you son-of-bitches' and then saw a white male [Keeton] with no shirt holding a black hand gun and firing it in the direction of Deputy Mitchell.” In his deposition, Sloan stated “He [Keeton] would have had to actually come out on the porch in order for me to see him.” According to Stegall, Keeton opened and closed the door himself. Although it is unclear who fired first, and whether the deputies began firing before or after the door closed, Keeton was shot six times. After the incident, there were approximately forty-nine bullet holes in the side of the trailer, including nine in the door itself. It is unclear how many of the bullets that hit Keeton came through the door or side of the trailer first.

         One of the Deputies, and then paramedics, administered first aid to Keeton, but he died at the scene. Deputies recovered around nine ounces of methamphetamine from the trailer. Stegall was unharmed and was arrested and charged with a drug offense. According to the Sheriff's Deputies, the $20, 000 that Parker stated was in the trailer was not found. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation was assigned to investigate the incident, and investigators arrived and took control of the scene that same night.

         The Plaintiffs filed this suit against Deputy Sloan and Monroe County in June of 2016. The Plaintiffs allege that Sloan violated Keeton's constitutional rights protected by the Fourth Amendment. Specifically, the Plaintiffs claim that the “no-knock” search and entry, at Sloan's direction, violated Keeton's right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, and that Keeton's death was a result of an unreasonable use of force. Sloan argues that he is entitled to qualified immunity, or in the alternative, that summary judgment is warranted in his favor.

         As to Monroe County, the Plaintiffs allege that there was no basis for a “no-knock” warrant in this case, that unconstitutional “no-knock” warrants are the default policy in Monroe County, and that the search, entry, and ultimately Keeton's death, were the result of this allegedly unconstitutional policy and practice. The County disputes these claims, and requests summary judgment in its favor.

         II. Standard of Review

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 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). “Where the burden of production at trial ultimately rests on the nonmovant, the movant must merely demonstrate an absence of evidentiary support in the record for the nonmovant's case.” Cuadra v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., 626 F.3d 808, 812 (5th Cir. 2010) (punctuation omitted). The nonmovant “must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. (punctuation omitted). “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, 626 F.3d at 812.

         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).

         The Court notes that the summary judgment record in this case is nearly 1300 pages long. The Court also notes that the vast majority of the Parties' lengthy summary judgment briefing is devoted to disputing the facts of this case. After reviewing the entire record of this case, the Court is of the opinion that the based on the record alone, the best and most prudent course is to allow this case to proceed to a full trial. “[E]ven if the standards of Rule 56 are met, a court has discretion to deny a motion for summary judgment if it believes that ‘a better course would be to proceed to a full trial.'” Kunin v. Feofanov, 69 F.3d 59, 62 (5th Cir. 1995) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255-56 (1986)). There are numerous, important differences between the eyewitness accounts, and differences between the statements and testimony of individual witnesses, some of which the Court highlights below, and other circumstantial evidence that the Court believes are best suited for jury consideration. Out of an abundance of caution, and in an effort to frame the legal issues in preparation for trial, the Court will analyze the case and the Parties' arguments as presented.

         III. Individual Liability - Deputy Sloan

         As noted above, Sloan asserts that he is entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity protects government officials from civil liability in their individual capacity to the extent that their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights. Trent v. Wade, 776 F.3d 368, 377 (5th Cir.), reh'g denied, 801 F.3d 494 (2015). “A good-faith assertion of qualified immunity alters the usual summary judgment burden of proof, ” shifting it to the plaintiff to show that the defense is not available. Trent, 776 F.3d at 376 (internal quotation marks omitted); accord McClendon v. City of Columbia, 305 F.3d 314, 323 (5th Cir. 2002) (en banc).

         A plaintiff seeking to overcome qualified immunity must show: “(1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was ‘clearly established' at the time of the challenged conduct.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 2080, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011). Courts are free to decide which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity analysis to address first. Id.; see also Camreta v. Greene, 563 U.S. 692, 131 S.Ct. 2020, 179 L.Ed.2d 1118 (2011). The second prong is satisfied only if “the state of the law at the time of the incident provided fair warning to the defendants that their alleged [conduct] was unconstitutional.” Tolan v. Cotton, __ U.S. __, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866, 188 L.Ed.2d 895 ...

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