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Clark v. Bridges

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Greenville Division

September 30, 2016

Christine Clark, Plaintiff,
v.
Brian K. Bridges, Justin Moody, Robert R. Wilkie, Ryan Abernathy, Brandon Scott, Sheriff Ricky Chastain, Sheriff Ray Watson, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Bruce Howe Hendricks United States District Judge.

         On August 27, 2014, Plaintiff Christine Clark (“Plaintiff” or “Clark”) filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action in the Court of Common Pleas for Laurens County, South Carolina, alleging that Defendants Brian K. Bridges (“Bridges”), Justin Moody (“Moody”), Robert R. Wilkie (“Wilkie”), Ryan Abernathy (“Abernathy”), Brandon Scott (“Scott”), and Kenneth Ray Smith (“Smith”)[1] (collectively “Individual Defendants”) violated her Fourth, Eight, and Fourteenth Amendment rights during a search of her home, seizure of property, and her associated arrest. (ECF No. 1-1.) Plaintiff also brought related claims for federal conspiracy, state civil conspiracy, and declaratory judgment. (Id.) On November 5, 2014, Defendants removed the case to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1441 and 1446. (ECF No. 1.) In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(d) D.S.C., this matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Jacquelyn D. Austin, for consideration of pretrial matters. On May 11, 2015, with leave of the Court, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint adding Defendants Sheriff Ricky Chastain (“Chastain”) and Sheriff Ray Watson (“Watson”) (collectively “Sheriff Defendants”) and a South Carolina Tort Claims Act claim against Chastain and Watson. (ECF No. 24.) The Magistrate Judge prepared a thorough Report and Recommendation (“Report”) which recommends that Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment be granted and part and denied in part, and that Defendants' motion for summary judgment be granted in part and denied in part. (ECF No. 55.) Plaintiff and Defendants filed timely objections to the Report. (ECF Nos. 61; 63.) Additionally, the parties filed replies to one another's objections. (ECF Nos. 67; 68.) For the reasons set forth herein, the Court adopts the Report.

         BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The Report sets forth in detail the relevant facts and standards of law, and the Court incorporates them herein, summarizing below only in relevant part. Plaintiff's operative pleading is her Amended Complaint, filed on May 11, 2015. (ECF No. 24.) In her Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges various violations of her rights under the U.S. Constitution as well as state law claims. (Id.) Specifically, Plaintiff brings suit against Individual Defendants under § 1983 for violation of her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures as well as unlawful arrest.[2] (Id. ¶¶ 14-32.) In general, Plaintiff's version of events is that she was at home dressed in her panties and about to take a shower when Individual Defendants: (1) arrived at her home to investigate the potential theft of a lawnmower; (2) burst through the back door, grabbed her and threw her on the ground, causing her to suffer multiple bruises; (3) photographed her in her panties, over her objection and to her humiliation and emotional distress; (4) verbally berated her, calling her foul names, (5) arrested her without a warrant for baseless charges; (6) grabbed her in an offensive manner and dragged her outside to be transported to the detention center; (7) searched her home without her consent and damaged her property in the process; (8) seized numerous items, including $200 and a cell phone, without a warrant; and (9) later obtained an invalid warrant, which did not and could not justify further searches inside her home. (Id. ¶¶ 14-28.) Plaintiff also brings a federal conspiracy claim, alleging that Individual Defendants conspired to violate 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and a state civil conspiracy claim, alleging that Individual Defendants conspired to deprive her of her federal and state rights, causing her special damages in the form of physical and emotional injuries. (Id. ¶¶ 33-38.) Further, Plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment stating that All Defendants violated her rights under the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Sections Ten and Fifteen of Article I of the South Carolina Constitution. (Id. ¶¶ 39-42.) Lastly, Plaintiff brings a South Carolina Tort Claims Act claim against Sheriff Defendants, alleging that: (1)Individual Defendants acted within the course and scope of their employment when they engaged in the alleged conduct described above; (2) that the Sheriffs are liable for the Individual Defendants actions and inactions; and, (3) that the Sheriffs were grossly negligent in their duties and responsibilities to have and/or implement appropriate policies regarding training, supervision, and monitoring of employees to prevent the misconduct that allegedly occurred here (Id. ¶¶ 43-47.)

         On September 18, 2015, Plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (ECF No. 32.) Defendants responded (ECF No. 41) and Plaintiff replied (ECF No. 46) in turn. On November 16, 2015, Defendants filed their own motion for summary judgment, asserting that they are entitled to judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims. (ECF No. 45.) Plaintiff responded (ECF No. 48) and Defendants replied (ECF No. 52) in turn. After consideration of all the relevant briefing, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report recommending that Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment be granted in part and denied in part, and that Defendants' motion for summary judgment be granted in part and denied in part. (ECF No. 55.) The Court has reviewed the objections (ECF Nos. 61; 63) to the Report and finds them to be without merit. Therefore, the Court will enter judgment accordingly.[3]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to the district court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight. The responsibility to make a final determination remains with the district court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976). The Court is charged with making a de novo determination of those portions of the Report to which specific objection is made, and the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge, or recommit the matter with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The Court need not conduct a de novo review when a party makes only “general and conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate's proposed findings and recommendations.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). In the absence of a timely filed, specific objection, the Magistrate Judge's conclusions are reviewed only for clear error. See Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005).

         DISCUSSION

         In the Report, the Magistrate Judge helpfully summarizes the various issues presented in the parties' respective motions for summary judgment. (ECF No. 55 at 10.) Plaintiff's motion alleges she is entitled to summary judgment on the following specific issues: (1) unconstitutional warrantless arrest; (2) unconstitutional pre-warrant search of the curtilage of her home; (3) unconstitutional post-warrant search of her home; (4) unconstitutional seizure of guns; and, (5) unlawful destruction of photographs taken during the course of the arrest. (See ECF No. 32-1 at 8-14.) Defendants allege that they are entitled to summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims. (See ECF No. 45-1 at 6-27.)

         Defendants Abernathy and Scott

         The Magistrate Judge begins her analysis by rejecting Defendants arguments that Abernathy and Scott are entitled to summary judgment because they were employed by the Abbeville County Sheriff's Office, they had no jurisdiction in Laurens County, [4] and they were not physically involved in Plaintiff's arrest and/or seizure. (ECF No. 55 at 10-11; see ECF No. 45-1 at 23.) Defendants argue that Abernathy and Scott were present merely to identify the stolen property and observe the search and/or seizure of the stolen property. (ECF No. 45-1 at 23.) However, as the Magistrate Judge notes, Defendants fail to cite any legal authority to support the position. The Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge that Abernathy and Scott's participation in the search and seizure is sufficient evidence upon which a reasonable juror could conclude that they were personally involved, even if indirectly. (ECF No. 55 at 11 (citing Dockery v. Tucker, No. 97-CV-3584(ARR), 2006 WL 5893295, at *14 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 6, 2006) (holding an FBI agent was not entitled to summary judgment for lack of personal involvement in a search because his participation in a task force and descriptions at trial of the acts at the scene were sufficient evidence upon which a reasonable juror could conclude the agent was personally involved, even if indirectly, in the search)).) Defendants make no specific objections to the Magistrate Judge's reasoning, and the Court finds that said reasoning evinces no clear error. See Diamond, 416 F.3d at 315 (holding de novo review unnecessary in the absence of a timely filed, specific objection). Accordingly, the Court denies Defendants' motion for summary judgment to the extent it is based on Abernathy and Scott's putative lack of personal involvement.

         Warrantless Arrest of Plaintiff

         The Magistrate Judge correctly explains a relevant distinction in the legal standard that applies to Plaintiff's arrest depending on where it took place. (ECF No. 55 at 11-12.) In general, “a warrantless arrest by a law officer is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment where there is probable cause to believe that a criminal offense has been or is being committed.” Devenpeck v. Alford, 543 U.S. 146, 152 (2004). “Whether probable cause exists depends upon the reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the facts known to the arresting officer at the time of the arrest.” Id. (citing Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 371 (2003)). A warrantless arrest inside a suspect's home, however, requires a different analysis because law enforcement officers are prohibited from entering a suspect's home without consent or a warrant. See Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 586 (1980). Such an arrest is only permissible if both probable cause and exigent circumstances are present. Id. at 590.

         As noted by the Magistrate Judge, a genuine issue of material fact exists with respect to the circumstances of Plaintiff's arrest. (ECF No. 55 at 13.) It is undisputed that Plaintiff was arrested without a warrant. Defendants' description of the arrest begins with Plaintiff exiting the residence, Bridges yelling to let her know that law enforcement officers were there, and then Plaintiff walking over to Bridges while other officers also walked toward him. (Bridges Dep., ECF No. 41-4, p. 28 l. 24 - p. 29 l. 7; p. 35 ll. 1-17.) Defendants' description ends with Plaintiff being arrested after being given Miranda warnings and answering the officers' questions about the stolen lawn mower. (Moody Dep., ECF No. 41-3, p. 22 l. 18 - p. 24 l. 25.) Under this version of events, because the arrest took place outside of the home, Defendants would only have to establish that they had probable cause to believe that a criminal offense-receiving stolen goods-had been or was being committed by Plaintiff in order to make the warrantless arrest lawful. See Davenpeck, 543 U.S. at 152.

         Plaintiff, on the other hand, describes the arrest as beginning in her laundry room, where she was allegedly grabbed by Bridges and pulled outside. (Clark Dep., ECF No. 48-4, p. 142 l. 19 - p. 147 l. 23.) Under this version of events, because Bridges entered Plaintiff's home to carry out the arrest, Defendants would have to establish both that they had probable cause and that exigent circumstances were present in order to make the warrantless arrest lawful. See Payton, 445 U.S. at 590. The Magistrate Judge concluded that this factual dispute affects the standard under which the Court must analyze Plaintiff's arrest and recommended that both motions for summary judgment be denied with regard to Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claim that she was subject to an unlawful arrest. (ECF No. 55 at 13-14.) Additionally, because this issue must await determination of the relevant facts at trial, the Magistrate Judge concluded that qualified immunity, as set forth in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982) and its progeny, is also inappropriate. (Id. at 13.)

         Plaintiff objects to this portion of the Report by arguing that the Magistrate Judge erred when she concluded that only probable cause would have been required for uninvited law enforcement to arrest Ms. Clark on the curtilage of her home. (ECF No. 63 at 1.) Plaintiff cites Pena v. Porter, 316 F. App'x 303, 316 (4th Cir. 2009) for the proposition that in the Fourth Circuit, “the curtilage of a home is afforded the same Fourth Amendment protection as the home itself.” (ECF No. 63 at 1.) Thus, Plaintiff avers, Defendants must show both probable cause and exigent circumstances to justify the warrantless arrest whether it occurred inside or outside the home. (Id.) Plaintiff further argues that Defendants cannot show exigent circumstances and she is therefore entitled to summary judgment. (Id. at 2-3.)

         The principle from Pena upon which Plaintiff relies is based on the Fourth Circuit's prior decisions in Rogers v. Pendleton, 249 F.3d 279 (4th Cir. 2001) and Alvarez v. Montgomery County, 147 F.3d 354 (4th Cir. 1988). Pena, Rogers, and Alvarez all addressed a warrantless search of the curtilage, not an arrest occurring on the curtilage. Accordingly, Plaintiff's reliance on these cases is inapposite and does not reveal any error in the Magistrate Judge's analysis. Plaintiff's objection is overruled.

         Defendants made no objection to this portion of the Report. Consequently, the Court adopts the Magistrate Judge's analysis and recommendation, and hereby denies both motions for summary judgment with regard the warrantless arrest issue.

         Pre-Warrant Search of the Curtilage

         The Magistrate Judge recommends that Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment should be granted with respect to her claim that her Fourth Amendment rights were violated when Defendants searched the curtilage of her home, and that Defendants' corresponding motion for summary judgment on this issue should be denied. (ECF No. 55 at 18.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court agrees and adopts the Magistrate Judge's analysis and recommendation.

         In the Report, the Magistrate Judge correctly states the relevant law regarding searches of curtilage by law enforcement (see ECF No. 55 at 14-15), which explication the Court largely incorporates here.[5] Ordinarily, no Fourth Amendment violation occurs when officers “knock on a residence's door or otherwise approach the residence seeking to speak to the inhabitants.” Rogers v. Pendleton, 249 F.3d 279, 289 (4th Cir. 2001). Moreover, under appropriate circumstances, officers may circle to the back of the home without a warrant. Alvarez v. Montgomery Cty., 147 F.3d 354, 358 (4th Cir. 1998) (finding it reasonable for officers responding to a 911 call complaining of an underage drinking party to enter a homeowner's backyard when “circumstances indicated they might find the homeowner there” because a sign affixed to a lamppost in the front driveway read, “Party In Back, ” and included an arrow pointing toward the backyard). The right of officers to “knock and talk, ” however, is “not the right to make a general investigation in the curtilage based on reasonable suspicion.” Rogers, 249 F.3d at 289. “The police may not . . . conduct a full search of the curtilage without a warrant or another justification that would be sufficient for entry into the home itself.” Edens v. Kennedy, 112 F. App'x 870, 874 (4th Cir. 2004) (citing Rogers, 249 F.3d at 287, 289). “A contrary rule would eviscerate the principle of [Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170 (1984)] and [United States v. Dunn, 480 U.S. 294 (1987)] that the curtilage is entitled to the same level of Fourth Amendment protection as the home itself.” Rogers, 249 F.3d at 289.

         The Magistrate Judge was not persuaded by Defendants' contention that their entry into the backyard was appropriate under Alvarez because they walked around the back of Plaintiff's home in order to locate and talk to an inhabitant. (See ECF No. 55 at 15-16.) Several officers testified that when they arrived at the residence, some officers went to the front door of the mobile home and knocked while Abernathy, Bridges, and Moody walked around to the rear. (See Scott Dep., ECF No. 32-11, p. 13 l. 17 - p. 14 l. 1; Abernathy Dep., ECF No. 41-2, p. 12 ll. 2-5; Bridges Dep., ECF No. 41-4, p. 25 ll. 3-12.) The Magistrate Judge found that Defendants failed to direct the Court to any evidence to suggest there was reason to believe that knocking on a backdoor would produce a different result from knocking on the front door. (ECF No. 55 at 16 (citing Pena v. Porter, 316 F. App'x 303, 314 (4th Cir. 2009) (finding that when no one answered the front door of a trailer home, unlike in Alvarez or United States v. Bradshaw, 490 F.2d 1097 (4th Cir. 1974), there was no reason to expect that knocking on a back door would produce a different result)).)

         Furthermore, the Magistrate Judge found that, even if walking around the residence to knock on the back door was not a Fourth Amendment violation, Bridges testified to two additional investigative actions that exceeded the purpose of walking around the house to knock on the back door. (ECF No. 55 at 16.) Specifically, after no one responded when Bridges knocked on the back door, he continued walking around the residence and came upon two pieces of ply board, sitting on hinges, which came together like doors and looked like a barn or shop. (Bridges Dep., ECF No. 41-4, p. 28 ll. 10-22.) Bridges was unable to tell if this was part of the residence or not (Id., p. 28 ll. 22-23), but it turns out this was the “laundry room, ” in which Plaintiff asserts she was arrested, and which contained a shower, a hot water heater, a washing machine and dryer, a table, and two chairs (Clark Dep., ECF No. 32-9, p. 133 l. 19 - 134 l. 19). First, Bridges stated, “I just stood - the doors were open. I just stood in the door, kind of looking around, to see what kind of place this is or whatever.” (Bridges Dep., ECF No. 41-4, p. 28 l. 24 - p. 29 l. 1.) Second, while waiting on the subsequently obtained search warrant, Bridges walked around the property to look at old cars in the backyard in order to see if he could “tell anything was recognizable about them being, you know, stolen or anything.” (Id., p. 44 ll. 1-7.) These actions, the Magistrate Judge concluded, were Fourth Amendment violations independent of whether walking around the residence to knock at the back was unlawful, because “the right to knock and talk does not entail a right to conduct a general investigation on a home's curtilage.” Covey v. Assessor of Ohio Cty., 777 F.3d 186, 193 (4th Cir. 2015) (citing Rogers, 249 F.3d at 289).

         Given that the curtilage enjoys the same Fourth Amendment protections as the home itself, Defendants must have possessed probable cause plus either a warrant or exigent circumstances to search the property in this manner. See Pena, 316 F. App'x at 313-16. Courts in the Fourth Circuit consider the following factors when determining whether exigent circumstances are present:

(1) the degree of urgency involved and the amount of time necessary to obtain a warrant; (2) the officers' reasonable belief that the contraband is about to be removed or destroyed; (3) the possibility of danger to police guarding the site; (4) information indicating the possessors of the contraband are aware that the police are on their trail; and (5) the ready destructibility of the contraband.

United States v. Turner, 650 F.2d 526, 528 (4th Cir. 1981) (citing United States v. Rubin, 474 F.2d 262, 268 (3d Cir. 1973)). Applying the Turner factors to the instant exigent circumstances analysis, the Magistrate Judge found that it would not have been reasonable for Defendants to believe exigent circumstances existed where: (1) the contraband was a lawn mower in plain view on the property; (2) no evidence exists to support a possibility of danger to the officers guarding the site; and, (3) the mower would not have been readily destructible. (ECF No. 55 at 17.) Accordingly, the Magistrate Judge determined that Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment should be granted with respect to this claim unless Defendants can establish they are entitled to qualified immunity.

         Here, Defendants object that the Magistrate Judge erred in finding an absence of exigent circumstances. (ECF No. 61 at 2.) They cite Gould v. Davis, 165 F.3d 265 (4th Cir. 1998), for the principle that the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement “basically encompasses officer safety and the destruction of easily-disposed evidence.” (ECF No. 61 at 2 (quoting Gould, 165 F.3d at 270-71).)[6] According to Defendants, the Magistrate Judge erred because the officers were not just looking for a lawn mower as contraband, but searching for other stolen property as well, including a four-wheeler, miscellaneous tools, and a tool bag with a D-ring. (Id.) The fact that some of the missing items were small and more easily disposed of, destroyed, or hidden than the lawn mower, argue Defendants, means that the officers reasonably believed exigent circumstances existed. (Id. at 2-3.)

         This line of argument is unpersuasive. For one thing, Defendants do not cite a single piece of authority to show that the contraband in question here, including all of the items listed above, is even remotely analogous to a case where the potential for destruction or disposal of prospective evidence triggers the presence of exigent circumstances. For another, Defendants have failed to direct the Court to any evidence that any officer actually had concerns about the destruction or disposal of evidence. If exigent circumstances exist in this case, then they exist in every case. The Fourth Amendment cannot tolerate such a metric for exigent circumstances. The Defendants' objection is overruled.

         As the Magistrate Judge deftly explains, qualified immunity protects government officials performing discretionary functions from civil damage suits as long as the conduct in question does not “violate clearly established rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow, 457 U.S. at 818. If the constitutional right of a § 1983 plaintiff was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation, such that an objectively reasonable official in the defendant's position would have known of the right, that official is not entitled to immunity. See Id. Conversely, “If the law at that time was not clearly established, an official could not reasonably be expected to anticipate subsequent legal developments, nor could he fairly be said to ‘know' that the law forbade conduct not previously identified as unlawful.” Id. Qualified immunity is “an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability.” Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985).

         In determining whether qualified immunity applies here, the Court must determine: (1) whether Plaintiff has alleged the deprivation of an actual constitutional right; and, (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 609 (1999). Moreover, “whether an official protected by qualified immunity may be held personally liable for an allegedly unlawful official action generally turns on the ‘objective legal reasonableness' of the action[, ] assessed in light of the legal rules that were ‘clearly established' at the time it was taken.” Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 639 (1987) (citing Harlow, 457 U.S. at 818-19). A right is “clearly established” if the “contours of the right [are] sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.” Anderson, 483 U.S. at 640.

         The Magistrate Judge determined that Plaintiff's right to be free from unreasonable searches was violated when Defendants searched the curtilage of her property, and that the right in question was clearly established. (ECF No. 55 at 18 (citing Pena, 316 Fed App'x at 316 (affirming the district court's denial of qualified immunity and noting that the “decisions in both Rogers and Alvarez make plain that the curtilage of a home is afforded the same Fourth Amendment protection as the home itself”)).) Consequently, the Magistrate Judge found that Defendants were not entitled to immunity. (ECF No. 55 at 18.)

         Here, Defendants object that the Magistrate Judge erred in denying them qualified immunity because the Magistrate Judge's finding that there were no exigent circumstances was based on an assumption that the contraband in question was limited to a lawn mower. (ECF No. 61 at 3.) As explained above, there is no evidence of ...


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