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Littlejohn v. Union County Police Department, Inv.

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

April 12, 2018

Marcus Dion Littlejohn, #328940, Plaintiff,
v.
Union County Police Department, Inv. Brandon Vaughan, Sgt. Jared Gilstrap, Cpl. Casey Barefoot, Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          KEVIN F. MCDONALD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         The plaintiff, proceeding pro se and informa pauperis, brings this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violation of his constitutional rights. The plaintiff is a South Carolina Department of Corrections inmate incarcerated at the Chester Detention Center DF. Pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(d) (D.S.C.), this magistrate judge is authorized to review all pretrial matters in cases filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and submit findings and recommendations to the District Court.

         BACKGROUND

         The plaintiff alleges that on June 14, 2017, the defendant officers with the Union County Police Department initiated an illegal traffic stop, resulting in his arrest for less than three grams of marijuana and the seizure of $982.00 in cash (doc. 1 at 4, 14). He says the arrest resulted in a “parole confliction” and amounted to an unreasonable search and seizure (id. at 4). He also claims that the defendants failed to produce a “proper receipt of chain of custody and or to secure a drug analysis” (id. at 15).

         The plaintiff seeks the return of the $982.00 seized from him when arrested, and an order vacating his conviction (id. at 6).

         DISCUSSION

         The plaintiff filed this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915, the in forma pauperis statute. This statute authorizes the District Court to dismiss a case if it is satisfied that the action “fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted, ” is “frivolous or malicious, ” or “seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). As a pro se litigant, the plaintiff's pleadings are accorded liberal construction and held to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by attorneys. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89 (2007) (per curiam). However, even under this less stringent standard, the pro se pleading remains subject to summary dismissal. The requirement of liberal construction does not mean that the Court can ignore a clear failure in the pleading to allege facts which set forth a claim cognizable in a federal district court. See Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387 (4th Cir. 1990).

         The plaintiff's claims of false arrest and illegal search and seizure are subject to dismissal pursuant to the Supreme Court's ruling in Heck v. Humphrey, which held that in order to recover damages for imprionment in violation of the United States Constitution, the imprisonment must first be successfully challenged. 512 U.S. 477, 490 (1994); see Edwards v. Balisock, 520 U.S. 641, 647-48 (1997) (holding that the preclusive rule of Heck extended to § 1983 claims challenging procedural deficiencies that necessarily imply the invalidity of the judgement). The Supreme Court held that

“to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, . . . a § 1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such a determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254. A claim for damages bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence that has not been so invalidated is not cognizable under § 1983.”

Id., 512 U.S. at 486-87.

         A review of publicly available online records for the Union County Sixteenth Judicial Circuit shows that following the plaintiff's arrest, he was indicted and ultimately pled guilty (case numbers 2017A4410100559-561). “[A] grand jury indictment is affirmative evidence of probable cause sufficient to defeat claims for malicious prosecution and false arrest under § 1983.” Wilson v. Chickering, C/A No. 0:15-4166-TMC, 2016 WL 422217, at *2 (D.S.C. Feb. 4, 2016) (citing Gatter v. Zappile, 67 F.Supp.2d 515, 519 (E.D. Pa.1999) (collecting cases holding that a grand jury indictment is affirmative evidence of probable cause), aff'd, 225 F.3d 648 (3d Cir. 2000)); see also Provet v. South Carolina, C/A No. 6:07-1094-GRA-WMC, 2007 WL 1847849, at *5 (D.S.C. June 25, 2007). Here, the plaintiff is attempting to attack the validity of his conviction; however, he has not shown that his conviction has been overturned or otherwise impugned. A favorable determination on the merits of the plaintiff's § 1983 claims would require a finding that his detention is invalid; accordingly, his claims are barred under Heck and subject to summary dismissal. In addition, the seizure of the money during his drug arrest was an issue that could have been presented to the state court during his criminal proceedings and cannot be raised here in light of his conviction.

         Further, the Union County Police Department cannot be sued under § 1983 because it is not a person. It is well settled that only “persons” may act under color of state law, so a defendant in a § 1983 action must qualify as a “person.” Although suing an entire department may be a lawsuit against a group of people, groups of people are not amenable to suit under § 1983. See Green v. Murdaugh, C/A No. 5:12-1086-RMG-KDW, 2012 WL 1987764, *2 (D.S.C. May 07, 2012), adopted by 2012 WL 1987259 (D.S.C. June 04, 2012) (dismissing because police department was not subject to suit under § 1983). Therefore, the Police Department should be dismissed from this action because the plaintiff fails to state a § 1983 claim against it.

         RECOMMENDATION

         It is recommended that the District Court dismiss this action without prejudice. The plaintiff's attention is ...


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