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Howell v. McCormick

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

December 13, 2017

JUSTIN MCCORMICK, et al., Defendants



         Pending before the court are three Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings, filed by Defendants McCormick, Jensen, Massey, Lopez-Aldea and Polk (with Defendant Vaughn, “the Officers”) (Docket No. 145); by the Defendant Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County (“Metro”) (Docket No. 146); and by Defendant Joshua Vaughn (Docket No. 149).

         For the reasons stated herein, the Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings will be denied.


         Plaintiffs Matthew Howell and Alisha Brown brought this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of their Fourth Amendment rights, violation of Howell's Fifth Amendment rights, and the state law claims of conversion, trespass, battery and false arrest (Docket No. 72). In their Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs make the following allegations, all of which must be accepted as true for purposes of these motions.

         On the night of December 8, 2014, Defendant Leila Avila, once a tenant who lived with the Plaintiffs in a home co-owned by Howell and Brown, broke into Plaintiffs' home, under the influence of an intoxicant and accompanied by an unknown male accomplice, and attempted to steal various items, including Plaintiff Howell's car. Once Howell convinced Avila and her accomplice to leave the premises, Avila called 911 and falsely accused Howell of pointing a gun at her. Avila told the 911 operator that she owned the car in Howell's garage and that Howell would not let her have it. Avila also told the 911 operator the following: (1) that she could not prove her ownership of the car; (2) that she was never in any danger; (3) that she did not think Howell's gun was loaded; (4) that she had already left Howell's property; (5) that Howell was not going to shoot at police; and (6) that she was safe.

         The Defendant Officers arrived at Plaintiffs' home in the early morning hours and found Defendant Avila outside the house and off the property, well away from any possible danger. They approached the house, some with guns drawn, and summoned Howell to the front door. They had no warrant to arrest or to search. Howell denied any wrongdoing and informed the Officers that Avila had broken into his home. Plaintiff Alisha Brown, an officer with the Tennessee Department of Corrections (“TDOC”), was behind Howell at the door, in full view of the Officers and wearing a TDOC uniform.

         When asked about weapons, Howell, a former Marine, responded that he had multiple guns in the home but none on his person and pulled his shirt up to reinforce that assertion. The Officers could see that Howell was not intoxicated or enraged. Howell declined the Officers' request to come outside, stating that if he stepped outside, he would be “surrendering his constitutional rights.” Because Howell was not successful in convincing the Officers that he, in fact, was the victim, he asked the Officers to speak to his lawyer and handed them his lawyer's business card. At that point, Officers McCormick, Lopez-Aldea and Vaughn stormed into Plaintiffs' house, seized Howell by force without probable cause, threw him against the wall (injuring his shoulder), and handcuffed him. After handcuffing him, the Officers placed Howell in the squad car, and McCormick and Polk interrogated him further about the alleged aggravated assault of Avila.

         Next, the Officers went back into Plaintiffs' home, without consent, seized Brown, and handcuffed her. Plaintiffs allege that Officers McCormick, Vaughn and Polk detained Brown without probable cause because she refused to make accusations against Howell and to use her to coerce Howell into cooperating with their interrogation. Once both Plaintiffs were handcuffed and detained by the other officers, Officers Massey and Jensen assisted Defendant Avila in “stealing” various goods from the house and also in stealing the car in Plaintiffs' garage. Plaintiffs have never received their car or the stolen goods back.

         Defendant McCormick brought the baseless charges of resisting arrest and aggravated assault against Howell, charges which resulted in the “continued seizure” of Howell. A jury acquitted Howell of both of the charges on February 24, 2016.


         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide that, after the pleadings are closed but within such time as not to delay the trial, any party may move for judgment on the pleadings. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). The standard of review applicable to motions for judgment on the pleadings is the same as that applicable to motions to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), both of which require the court to construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, accept all of the complaint's factual allegations as true, and determine whether the plaintiff undoubtedly can prove no set of facts in support of the claims that would entitle him to relief. Hayward v. Cleveland Clinic Foundation, 759 F.3d 601, 608 (6th Cir. 2014).


         Federal law provides a private right of action against anyone who subjects any citizen of the United States, or other person within the jurisdiction thereof, to the deprivation of any rights or privileges secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The person suing under this statute must demonstrate the denial of a constitutional right caused by a defendant acting under color of state law. Carl v. Muskegon County, 763 F.3d 592, 595 (6th Cir. 2014).


         The Fourth Amendment provides that the right of the people to be secure in their houses against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated. U.S. Const. amend. IV. The Fourth Amendment generally prohibits the warrantless entry of a person's home, whether to make an arrest or to search for specific objects. Causey v. City of Bay City, 442 F.3d 524, 528 (6th Cir. 2006).

         Plaintiffs allege that Officers McCormick, Lopez-Aldea, Vaughn and Polk[1] violated their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by invading Plaintiffs' home without a warrant, by arresting Howell without a warrant, and by detaining Brown without a warrant. Plaintiffs also contend that the Officers violated their Fourth Amendment rights by stealing (“seizing”) their car and other goods, after physically disabling both Howell and Brown. The Officers argue that, under the particular circumstances of this case and based upon what the Officers knew at the time, exigent circumstances authorized their warrantless seizures of Howell and Brown and their entry into the home, so no Fourth Amendment violation occurred.[2]

         Because the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is “reasonableness, ” the warrant requirement is subject to certain exceptions. Brigham City v. Stuart, 126 S.Ct. 1943, 1947 (2006). A warrant is not required to enter a person's home when the exigencies of the situation make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that the warrantless entry is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Id.; Nelms v. Wellington Way Apartments, LLC, 513 Fed. App'x 541, 545 (6th Cir. 2013). The Sixth Circuit has traditionally found the existence of exigent circumstances when (1) the officers were in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect; (2) the suspect represented an immediate threat to the arresting officers and public; and (3) immediate police action was necessary to prevent the destruction of vital evidence or to thwart the escape of known criminals. Causey, 442 F.3d at 529.

         Because it is essentially a factual determination, there is no set formula for determining when exigent circumstances may justify a warrantless entry. Osborne v. Harris County, Texas, 97 F.Supp.3d 911, 924 (S.D. Tex. 2015). An action is “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment, regardless of the individual officer's state of mind, so long as the circumstances, viewed objectively, justify the action. Id. Exigent circumstances are situations where real, immediate and serious consequences will certainly occur if a police officer postpones action to obtain a warrant. United States v. Phillips, 931 F.Supp.2d 783, 793 (E.D. Mich. 2013).

         One of the exigent circumstances articulated by the Supreme Court is a risk of danger to the police or others. United States v. Huffman, 461 F.3d 777, 782 (6th Cir. 2006) (citing Brigham City, 126 S.Ct. at 1947). In Brigham City, the Court held that police may enter a home without a warrant when they have an objectively reasonable basis for believing that an occupant is seriously injured or imminently threatened with such injury. Brigham City, 126 S.Ct. at 1944. In that case, officers were called, at 3:00 a.m., to investigate a loud party. As they approached, they could hear an altercation, some kind of fight, occurring within. They heard thumping and crashing and people yelling, “stop, stop” and “get off me.” From the back of the house, they saw that a fracas was taking place in the kitchen and that a juvenile was being held back by several adults. The officers saw that, when the juvenile broke free, he hit one of the adults in the face, sending the adult to the sink spitting blood. Id. at 1949. The Court found that, in these circumstances, the officers had an objectively reasonable basis for believing that the injured adult might need help and that the violence in the kitchen was just beginning. Id.

         The Sixth Circuit has held that the presence of a weapon creates an exigent circumstance, provided the Officers possessed information that the subject was armed and likely to use a weapon or become violent. United States v. Phillips, 931 F.Supp.2d at 792 (citing United States v. Bates, 84 F.3d 790, 795 (6th Cir. 1996)). However, evidence that firearms are within a residence, by itself, is not sufficient to create an exigent circumstance. Id. In Phillips, there were reports of gunshots fired, and the officers suspected firearms might be in the residence. The defendant was outside and unarmed, however, at the time the officers were attempting to search the residence. The court found there were no exigent circumstances justifying a warrantless search. Id.

         Here, the dispatch recording[3] (Audio CD manually filed with Docket No. 50) indicates that the Officers were told the following: there was a “41-related” (domestic disturbance) reported at 1236 Canyon Ridge; the caller said that her “roommate, ” Matt Howell, had pointed a gun at her; it was unknown whether the gun was loaded; Howell was reported to be intoxicated; the caller (Ms. Avila) was outside the house, standing in the street, at 1220 Canyon Ridge; there was no history of strangulation; and another female was sleeping in the bedroom at the house.

         The Officers argue that they reasonably believed that exigent circumstances existed. The Officers contend that they knew they were responding to a domestic disturbance, a risky situation, with a report of an assault by an intoxicated man with a gun. The Officers assert that they could legally seize the individual (Howell) who was blocking the Officer's entry to the house and search the premises to ensure that there was no other assailant or victim. The Officers also point to Howell's statement that he had multiple guns in the house.

         Plaintiffs, on the other hand, argue that, when the Officers arrived, the caller (Avila) was away from the house, not even on the property. Plaintiffs contend that Howell was standing right inside his front door, where the Officers could see him, and Brown was standing right behind him. Howell alleges that he told the Officers he did own guns, but he also told and showed them that he was not carrying a gun at that time. Plaintiffs assert that the Officers could see that Howell was neither drunk nor enraged. There was no evidence of violence, no evidence of injury to anyone, and no evidence that Howell was unstable. Neither Howell nor Brown retreated into the house.

         Plaintiffs claim that the Officers did not treat Howell as a dangerous threat until he invoked his right to remain silent and told them to speak to his lawyer. Plaintiffs contend that, at the time the Officers seized Howell and entered the house, they had not even interviewed the 911 caller (Avila) to determine what her complaint actually was or to consider the veracity of the information they had received.


         (A) Seizure

         With regard to the seizure of Howell, the facts that support a finding of exigent circumstances include: Howell refused to come outside; Howell admitted he had multiple guns in the house; the information the Officers received was that Howell was intoxicated and had pointed a gun at Ms. Avila; and the Officers had been told that there was another person (female) sleeping in the house. On the other hand, the facts that support a finding of no exigent circumstances include: there was no evidence of violence; Howell demonstrated that he was unarmed; there was no tumultuous or loud situation in the house; Brown was standing right behind Howell; there was no sign that violence had recently occurred or was about to take place; there ...

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