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Lawson v. Thompson

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

November 16, 2016

CASEY LAWSON, Plaintiff,
THOMPSON, et al, Defendants. v.



         Plaintiff Casey Lawson brings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against all Defendants for violations of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure of his personal property (Count I). The defendants[1] are the Fifteenth Judicial District Drug Task Force (“15thJDDTF” or “Drug Task Force”); Smith County; Trousdale/Hartsville County (“Trousdale County”); Michael Thompson, director of the 15th JDDTF, and sued in his official and individual capacities; Charles Hopper, sheriff of the Smith County Sheriff's Department (“SCSD”), and sued in his official and individual capacities; Christopher Jenkins, an SCSD detective, and sued in his official and individual capacity; Brandon Gooch, a detective for the Hartsville/Trousdale County Sheriff's Department (“TCSD”) assigned to the 15th JDDTF, and sued in his official capacities as a TCSD detective and 15th JDDTF agent and in his individual capacity; and Steve Babcock, an SCSD detective assigned to the 15th JDDTF, and sued in his official capacities as an SCSD detective and 15th JDDTF agent and in his individual capacity. Plaintiff Lawson also brings various state law claims against Defendants (Counts II-VI).

         Pending before the Court are Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment, (Docket Nos. 57, 63, 66), to which Plaintiff Lawson has filed Responses in Opposition, (Docket Nos. 71, 76, 80), and Defendants have replied, (Docket Nos. 90, 93). For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment. However, the Court's ruling is limited to Plaintiff's federal claims only, and all state claims will be dismissed without prejudice.[2]


         In July 2011, Plaintiff Lawson became a confidential informant (“C.I.”) for the 15thJDDTF. (Docket No. 78 at 3, ¶¶ 8-9). As a C.I., Plaintiff Lawson assisted in several controlled buys and sales of drugs. (Id. at 4, ¶ 11).

         On April 2, 2012, the Smith County Grand Jury returned sealed indictments against nineteen individuals. (Id. at 6, ¶ 20). The majority of the indictments were for drug-related offenses. (Docket No. 82 at 9, ¶ 29). On that same day, Plaintiff Lawson approached Defendant Hopper and Defendant Thompson and told them the current address of the Frenches, who had been indicted under seal. (Docket No. 78 at 7, ¶ 22; id. at 8, ¶ 25). That action indicated to Defendant Thompson that Plaintiff Lawson knew about indictments he should not have known about. (Docket No. 78 at 7, ¶ 22). Only one of the nineteen people indicted - Nancy Berry, a person with whom Plaintiff Lawson had engaged in a controlled buy of cocaine - was located in the round-up, which was an unusually low number. (Id. at 7, ¶¶ 21, 23, 24).

         When Berry was arrested on April 10, 2012, a search of her phone revealed that she had received a text message from Plaintiff Lawson's cell phone number stating, “You got 3 indictments today.” (Docket No. 78 at 7, ¶ 23; Docket No. 82 at 9, ¶ 30). Defendant Thompson and Defendant Hopper interviewed Berry after the arrest, and Berry told them that Plaintiff Lawson had tipped off both her and Andrew Gibbs about their sealed indictments, leading Gibbs to go on the run, and that Plaintiff Lawson was still a “heavy” user of crack cocaine. (Docket No. 78 at 8, ¶ 25). Berry also said that Plaintiff Lawson's wife, Capri Lawson, knew about or was also involved with tipping off drug offenders about sealed indictments against them. (Id.). Berry agreed to have a wire concealed in her purse to investigate the Lawsons' involvement in tipping off drug offenders about their sealed indictments. (Id. at 8, ¶ 27).

         From the Smith County Jail, Berry called Buddy's Bonding Company, where Capri Lawson wrote bonds, asking to be bailed out. (Id. at 9, ¶ 28; Docket No. 73 at 4, ¶ 18). Both Plaintiff Lawson and Capri Lawson went to the jail. (Docket No. 78 at 9, ¶ 28). Defendant Gooch, who was informed by Defendant Thompson that Berry had agreed to wear a wire, monitored Berry's conversations. (Docket No. 73 at 4, ¶¶ 16-17). Berry spoke briefly with Plaintiff Lawson and told him, “[Law enforcement] took my phone, ” and Plaintiff Lawson asked her if anything was on it. (Docket No. 78 at 9, ¶ 30).

         Capri Lawson bailed out Berry and agreed to drive Berry to a motel in Carthage, TN. (Docket No. 73 at 5, ¶ 22; Docket No. 78 at 9, ¶ 31). While Capri Lawson and Berry were sitting in Lawsons' Cadillac CTS-V in the jail parking lot, Defendant Gooch, who was monitoring the conversation, overheard Berry say to Capri Lawson that the Drug Task Force was “on to them.” (Docket No. 73 at 6, ¶ 24). Defendant Gooch also heard Capri Lawson call Andrew Gibbs, one of the drug offenders indicted under seal, to warn him that the Drug Task Force had discovered the plot to leak sealed indictments. (Id. at 6, ¶¶ 25-26). Berry, over Capri Lawson's phone, told Gibbs that, “They're looking for you, ” referring to the Drug Task Force or law enforcement in general. (Id. at 6, ¶ 27).

         Based on the information gathered, Defendant Thompson requested that Defendant Jenkins apply for a search warrant for the Lawsons' cell phone records. (Docket No. 78 at 10, ¶ 36). Defendant Thompson provided the information for the search warrant application, and the District Attorney's Office approved the application before Defendant Jenkins submitted it to a judge. (Id. at 10, ¶ 37; Docket No. 82 at 11, ¶¶ 41-43). On April 12, 2012, Smith County Criminal Court Judge David Durham issued the search warrant for the cell phones. (Docket No. 78 at 11, ¶ 39).

         After execution of the search warrant, an analysis of the cell phones revealed text messages suggesting Plaintiff Lawson's direct involvement in alerting indicted drug offenders of their sealed indictments, and Capri Lawson's likely direct involvement, or knowledge of, Plaintiff Lawson's tipping off indicted offenders. (Id. at 11, ¶ 40). For example, one text message from Plaintiff Lawson's phone said, “HIDE HIDE OLD BUDDY YOU GOT 3 INDICTMENTS TODAY BUT THEY AINT SERVING THEM TILL FRIDAY.” (Id. at 11, ¶ 41). There were also text messages that stated that Plaintiff Lawson was blackmailing, or attempting to blackmail, someone; messages discussing firearms Plaintiff Lawson was attempting to trade or sell; and messages suggesting possible illegal surveillance activities. (Id. at 12, ¶ 47; Docket No. 82 at 12, ¶ 46).

         On April 13, 2012, Plaintiff got a text message from Jermaine Phillips' cell phone number that said, “HEY YOU THINK YOU CAN GET THE SMOKE BY THE TIME WE GET READY TO LEAVE AROUND 5:00 PM [?]” (Docket No. 78 at 11, ¶ 42). On that same afternoon, Defendant Thompson saw Plaintiff Lawson driving a Ford F250 pickup truck. (Id. at 12, ¶ 43).

         Based on the information in the text messages, Defendant Thompson advised law enforcement to apply for a search warrant for the Lawsons' residence at 405 Third Avenue East in Carthage, TN. (Id. at 13, ¶ 49). Defendant Thompson supplied the information that went into Defendant Jenkins' search warrant application for the Lawsons' residence, and the District Attorney's Office reviewed the application. (Id. at 13, ¶ 50; Docket No. 82 at 16, ¶ 59). On May 2, 2012 at 8:18 a.m., Judge John Wootten issued a search warrant. (Docket No. 73 at 9, ¶ 40). It authorized the search of the house, outbuildings, and vehicles at the Lawsons' residence and contained a specific property list to be searched for, including firearms, narcotics and drug paraphernalia, surveillance equipment, recording devices, video storage devices, cellular devices, and paper records. (Docket No. 78 at 14, ¶ 53; Docket No. 63-1 at 33).

         On the morning of May 2, 2012, Defendants Thompson and Jenkins held a meeting to brief Defendant Gooch, Defendant Babcock, Defendant Hopper, and others about the search warrant to be executed. (Docket No. 78 at 14, ¶ 54). After the meeting, Defendant Babcock, Defendant Gooch, and one other drove to the Lawsons' residence, entered with Capri Lawson's permission, secured the residence, and waited for Defendant Jenkins to arrive with the search warrant before commencing the search. (Docket No. 73 at 9, ¶¶ 37-38; Docket No. 78 at 15, ¶¶ 56-58).

         On that same morning, the Smith County chief deputy called Plaintiff Lawson to come to the Smith County Sheriff's Department, and Plaintiff Lawson arrived in the Cadillac CTS-V after the officers' search warrant briefing meeting had concluded. (Id. at 15, ¶ 59). When Plaintiff Lawson arrived, Defendant Thompson asked Plaintiff Lawson to empty his pockets, and Plaintiff Lawson willingly submitted to a pat-down for weapons. (Id. at 15, ¶ 60). Plaintiff Lawson was then given his Miranda warning and interviewed by Defendant Jenkins and Defendant Thompson. (Id. at 16, ¶¶ 61-62). During the interview recorded audio-visually, Plaintiff Lawson told Defendant Thompson that he had told Jermaine Phillips that people were known to buy and sell marijuana at a certain trailer park in Carthage, TN. (Docket No. 78 at 16, ¶¶ 62, 65; Docket No. 79-1 at 2, ¶ 13).

         Sometime between 10:00 to 10:30 a.m. on May 2, 2012, Defendant Thompson, Defendant Jenkins, and Carthage Police Department officers arrived at the Lawsons' residence with the search warrant and executed the search. (Docket No. 78 at 21, ¶ 88-89). Defendant Hopper also arrived at the Lawsons' residence and participated in the search pursuant to the warrant. (Docket No. 82 at 18, ¶ 63).

         During the execution of the search, items of personal property inside the Lawsons' residence were seized and logged, mostly by Defendant Babcock with a few entries made by Defendant Gooch, on a search warrant return that was then signed by Defendant Jenkins. (Docket No. 78 at 23, ¶ 95; Docket No. 63-1 at 35-36). Defendant Gooch did not carry any of the items out of the house. (Docket No. 73 at 11, ¶ 46). The search warrant return was submitted to Judge Wootten. (Docket No. 78 at 23, ¶ 96). Items taken as evidence by the Smith County Sheriff's Department included equipment for surveillance activities, paper records, phones, recording devices, several guns, and computers. (Id. at 23, ¶ 97; Docket No. 82 at 18, ¶ 64). Defendant Gooch searched the Ford F250 pickup truck that was parked in the driveway of the Lawsons' residence. (Docket No. 73 at 11, ¶ 47). No narcotics or drug paraphernalia were found inside the residence during the search or inside the Ford F250. (Docket No. 78 at 23, ¶ 98; Docket No. 73 at 11, ¶ 49). Defendant Jenkins completed an incident report, detailing the investigation and search, pursuant to Smith County Sheriff Department policy. (Docket No. 82 at 19, ¶ 69).

         As the search concluded on May 2, 2012, Defendant Gooch gave a Notice of Seizure form to Capri Lawson listing the Ford F250 truck, $255 in U.S. currency, and a Wells Fargo Safe. (Docket No. 73 at 11, ¶ 50). Defendant Gooch also filled out a Notice of Seizure form for the Cadillac CTS-V that Plaintiff Lawson had driven to the Smith County Sheriff's Department on May 2, 2012. (Docket No. 78 at 25, ¶ 106).

         Defendant Thompson asked Defendant Gooch to appear before Trousdale County General Sessions Judge Kenny Linville to pursue forfeiture of the two vehicles and the $255 U.S. currency. (Id. at 26, ¶ 111). Defendant Thompson provided Defendant Gooch a written document explaining the reason for the seizure/forfeiture of those items, and he fully briefed Defendant Gooch on the rationale. (Id. at 26, ¶ 112).

         Defendant Gooch testified before Judge Linville, who found probable cause for forfeiture of the two vehicles and the U.S. currency, and he issued forfeiture warrants for them. (Id. at 27-28, ¶¶ 117-118). The Drug Task Force Office then sent notice of the forfeiture warrants to the Tennessee Department of Safety, which decided to proceed with the forfeitures and sent notices to the Lawsons. (Id. at 28, ¶ 120; Docket No. 73 at 15, ¶ 68). Capri Lawson filed to challenge the forfeiture of the vehicles and the U.S. currency in a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) in Cookeville, TN on April 3, 2013. (Docket No. 78 at 28, ¶ 121). The ALJ ruled that the vehicles and cash be returned to Capri Lawson. (Id. at 29, ¶ 123).


         Summary judgment “is appropriate only where ‘the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” Whitfield v. Tennessee, 639 F.3d 253, 258 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). Where a moving party without the burden of proof at trial seeks summary judgment, the movant “bears the initial burden of showing that there is no material issue in dispute.” Lindsay v. Yates, 578 F.3d 407, 414 (6th Cir. 2009) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). “Once a moving party has met its burden of production, ‘its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.'” Blizzard v. Marion Tech. Coll., 698 F.3d 275, 282 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986)). The Court “must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000) (citation omitted). “Reviewing the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the court must ultimately determine whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Blizzard, 698 F.3d at 282 (internal quotations and citations omitted).


         I. ...

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