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Hodge v. Blount County

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee

September 1, 2017

JUDY HODGE, on behalf of herself and the ESTATE OF LARRY HODGE, Plaintiffs,
v.
BLOUNT COUNTY, TENNESSEE; and JAMES BERRONG, JEFF CLARK, DOUG DAVIS, JAMES LONG, DOUG MOORE, RON TALBOTT, and HENRY VAUGHN in their individual capacities, Defendants.

          Shirley, Judge

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Reeves, Judge

         Before the Court are motions to dismiss filed by Blount County and by the Officer Defendants. Judy Hodge claims that her ailing husband Larry was beat up during a traffic stop by Henry Vaughn, a Blount County police officer. After being beaten, Vaughn and Officer Doug Davis arrested the bleeding Larry and refused to take him to a hospital. Larry's injuries worsened his preexisting medical conditions, hastening his death.

         This beating, Hodge asserts, was unconstitutional and was caused by unconstitutional policies and practices maintained by Hodge's supervisors. These supervisors included Sheriff James Ber-rong, Deputy Chief Ron Talbott, Deputy Chief James Long, and Patrol Captain Jeff Clark. And when Hodge's supervisors learned of the beating, Officer Doug Moore conducted a sham investigation that led to no consequences.

         This suit followed in June 2016, and a nine-count amended complaint followed in February 2017. Defendants now ask the Court to dismiss all claims against them. For the following reasons, these motions will be granted in part and denied in part.

         II

         Defendants move to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the complaint must state a facially plausible claim for relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). To determine whether the complaint states a facially plausible claim, the Court takes a two-step approach. Id. at 679. First, it separates the complaint's factual allegations and legal conclusions. All factual allegations, and only the factual allegations, are taken as true. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007).

         Second, the Court asks whether these factual allegations amount to a plausible claim for relief. Id. at 555. The allegations do not need to be highly detailed, but they must do more than simply recite the elements of the offense. Id. Specifically, the complaint must plead facts permitting a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the alleged conduct. Id. If this is not done, the claim will be dismissed. Id. at 570.

         III

         The Officer Defendants offer two reasons for granting their motion to dismiss. First, some of Hodge's claims have not been properly stated. And even if they were, the Officers are protected by qualified immunity against all counts.

         The doctrine of qualified immunity shields public officers from suit as long as their conduct did not violate the plaintiff's clearly established rights. See, e.g., Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S.Ct. 1843, 1866 (2017). There are thus two questions involved: whether the officer violated the plaintiff's rights, and whether those rights were clearly established. See City & Cty. of S.F. v. Sheehan, 135 S.Ct. 1765, 1774 (2015). A right is clearly established when a reasonable officer in the defendant's shoes would have known that his conduct violated the plaintiff's right. Hernandez v. Mesa, 137 S.Ct. 2003, 2007 (2017). A reasonable officer would have known this if “existing precedent” placed the issue “beyond debate.” Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308 (2015). And when determining whether such precedent exists, the court looks at the particularized facts of the case, not at a high level of generality. White v. Pauly, 137 S.Ct. 548, 552 (2017).

         A

         Under Counts 1 and 2 of the amended complaint, Hodge asserts that Vaughn used excessive force when arresting Larry, in violation of his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure. She alleges that Vaughn used excessive force by pointing his gun at Larry and by forcibly arresting him. Vaughn asserts that, under the facts as stated in the complaint, he is entitled to qualified immunity.

         Under the facts as stated in the complaint, Vaughn is not entitled to qualified immunity. This answer flows directly from Brown v. Lewis, 779 F.3d 401 (6th Cir. 2015), decided four months before the events at issue here. In Brown, a man who sounded drunk called 911 from a home and vaguely requested police. Id. at 407. When he put down the phone he did not hang up, and the 911 dispatcher heard him make a joking threat against the woman who had not yet shown up to give him a ride. Id. at 407-08. The dispatcher sent an officer to check out the situation at the home. Id. at 409.

         At the same time, two women were driving in one car to the home. Id. at 408. The driver was Kishna Brown, the plaintiff. Id. at 407. Brown dropped off her friend at the home and drove away. Id. The officer watching the home thought that Brown was giving the man a ride. Id. at 409. He called two other police cruisers, and they all pulled Brown over. Id. One officer opened the rear passenger door to Brown's car and pointed an AR-15 at her head. Id. at 408. As Brown asked “What did I do?” officers cursed at her and told her to get out of the car. Id. She moved to exit her car, but before her foot could touch the ground, two officers grabbed her by her sweatshirt hood, threw her to the pavement, and handcuffed her. Id. at 408. They let Brown go after ten minutes. Id. at 409.

         Brown sued the officers for wrongful seizure and excessive force, among other things. Id. at 410. The officers moved for summary judgment, arguing that they were entitled to qualified immunity. Id. The district court denied the motion. Id. It found that the force described by Brown was constitutionally excessive, and that this excessiveness was clearly established. Id. The officers appealed. Id.

         The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Id. at 421. On the wrongful-seizure claim, the court began by noting that a seizure occurs when a reasonable person would not think that he could walk away. Id. at 412. And there are two types of seizure, which are given different types of scrutiny. Id. Under the first type, an officer detains someone for a short time for investigatory purposes. Id. The officer may do so if, under the circumstances, he has a “particularized and objective basis for suspecting” that the person has committed a crime “based on specific and articulable facts.” Id. For such a stop to be reasonable, the degree of intrusion into the person's security must be “reasonably related in scope to the situation at hand.” Id. If the length and manner of the stop, including the force used, are not reasonably related to the basis for the initial intrusion, then the stop becomes an arrest- the second kind of seizure-requiring probable cause. Id.

         Under this framework, the court found that the officers had violated Brown's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures. Id. at 416. It concluded that the length and manner of the initial stop were not reasonably related in scope to the situation at hand. Id. at 414. “Courts consider the length of the detention, the manner in which it is conducted, and the degree of force used in determining whether an investigative stop is reasonably related to the basis for the original intrusion.” Id. The officers had wrongly continued to detain Brown after learning that the man was not in her car, and Brown's behavior did not give the officers any reason to believe that she was dangerous. Id. The seizure thus grew into an arrest, which the officers lacked probable cause for. Id. at 415.

         The court further found that Brown's right against wrongful seizure was clearly established. Id. at 416. It quoted a 2006 case which stated, “‘The law is clear that once the purposes of the initial traffic stop are completed, there is no doubt that the officer cannot further detain the vehicle or its occupants unless something that occurred during the traffic stop generated the reasonable suspicion to justify a further detention.'” Id. (quoting Smoak v. Hall, 460 F.3d 768, 782 (6th Cir. 2006)). And once the officers realized that Brown was alone in the car, they had no more reason to hold her. Id. Thus, they were not entitled to qualified immunity on the wrongful-seizure claim.

         Count 1 of Hodge's complaint strongly mirrors this claim in Brown.[1] According to the complaint, Larry's side mirror struck another car's side mirror as they passed each other. Larry then tried to talk to the woman, but every time he got close to her car she would drive slightly away from him. So Larry gave up and drove off. The woman in the other car then called 911 to report that someone had broken her mirror and driven off. Thus, when police were looking for Larry's car, they were looking for someone who at most could be charged with hit and run causing property damage. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-10-102. But under Tennessee law, someone suspected of this offense must be ticketed, not arrested. Id. § 55-10-207(b)(1). Larry, then, was not even wanted for an arrestable offense. And when Vaughn pulled Larry over, Larry sat motionless in his seat, hands at 10 and 2. Yet Vaughn approached Larry's car with his gun drawn and pointed at Larry's head. As in Brown, this use of force was not reasonably related in scope to the situation at hand.

         To be sure, Brown is not exactly on point. In Brown, the plaintiff tried to get out of the car when she was ordered to, but then was thrown to the ground by police. Here, Larry did not comply with Vaughn's order to get out of the car. Instead, Larry responded with profanity and said “I'm not getting out.” But again, Vaughn had no business trying to arrest Larry anyway. Under state law, Vaughn should have given Larry a ticket, not arrested him at gunpoint. What's more, Vaughn was driving an unmarked white pickup-hardly what people think when they hear “cop car”-and he was wearing nothing that would identify him as a Blount County officer. Nor did he identify himself as an officer. So as far as Larry could tell, a stranger had pulled him over, pointed a gun at his head, and was trying to force him out of the car. A reasonable officer in that situation would at least know to identify himself as an officer. Cf. Yates v. City of Cleveland, 941 F.3d 444, 447 (6th Cir. 1991) (“An officer who intentionally enters a dark hallway in the entrance of a private residence in the middle of the night, and fails to give any indication of his identity, is more than merely negligent.”).

         Finally, as the Brown court noted, it's clear that an officer cannot detain someone during a traffic stop once the purposes of the stop are completed, unless something happened to justify further detention. Here, the purposes of the stop never even began, as Vaughn went straight to arresting Larry without ticketing him. At this stage of litigation, Vaughn is not entitled to qualified immunity on Count 1 of Hodge's complaint.

         As for the wrongful-seizure claim, the Brown court noted that the Fourth Amendment “protects individuals from the use of excessive force during an arrest or investigatory stop.” 779 F.3d at 418. To determine whether the force was excessive, courts must look to the reasonableness of the force in light of the circumstances before the defendants. Id. And three factors determine reasonableness: the severity of the suspected crime, whether the suspect poses and immediate threat to officers or others, and whether she is actively resisting arrest or trying to flee. Id. The court held that, under these factors, the officers' use of force was excessive. Id. Brown fully complied with the officers' orders, they saw no weapons in her car, and her hands stayed in clear view. Id.

         The court also found that this right was well established. It noted that, “since at least 2009, the use of violence against a subdued and non-resisting individual has been clearly established as excessive, regardless of whether the individual had been placed in handcuffs.” Id. at 419.

         This claim largely resembles the facts alleged in Count 2 of Hodge's complaint. Larry was suspected of a Class C misdemeanor that warranted a ticket, not an arrest. And Larry, a 67-year-old man, was sitting motionless in his seat, hands at 10 and 2. These two factors point toward a constitutional violation. The only twist here is the third factor: Larry was actively resisting arrest. But again, Vaughn should not have been trying to arrest him in the first place. And Vaughn failed to identify himself as an officer before forcing Larry out of the car. See Doornbos v. City of Chicago, ___ F.3d ___, 2017 WL 3574812, at *1 (7th Cir. Aug. 18, 2017) (“In all but the most unusual circumstances . . . plainclothes officers must ...


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