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Coleman v. Calvert County

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

September 22, 2016

WAYNE E. COLEMAN, Plaintiff,
CALVERT COUNTY, et al., Defendants.


          GEORGE J. HAZEL United States District Judge

         Pro-Se Plaintiff Wayne E. Coleman's Amended Complaint alleges violations of his civil rights, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, 1986, and 18 U.S.C. § 241, along with state law claims for various torts against Calvert County, the Calvert County Sheriff Department, the State of Maryland, Supervising Officer Phelps, Officer Gott, Officer Cress, and Sheriff Mike Evans. ECF No. 16. Now pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 27. A hearing is unnecessary. Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons stated below, the Court grants summary judgment to ail Defendants on all counts except for the unreasonable search and seizure claim in Count I with respect to Gott, Phelps, and Evans in their individual capacities.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         On the morning of February 4, 2014, Coleman was driving his pick-up truck home along Route 260 after picking up his medication at a local pharmacy when Officer Gott pulled him over for not having a rear license plate. ECF No. 16 ¶ 6. Gott approached the driver's side door, informed Coleman that he lacked a rear license plate, and asked for identification. Id. Coleman handed Gott a "personal identification card"[2] and a "Public Servant's Questionnaire." Id. The Questionnaire asserted the right of a "sovereign natural person" to collect information from a "Public Servant" pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552a(e)(3). ECF No. 17-2. Upon receiving these papers, Gott returned to his vehicle and requested a supervisor because Coleman was not providing his license. ECF No. 27, Ex. A at 09:47:30.[3]

         Supervising Officer Phelps then arrived on the scene. ECF No. 16 ¶ 7. Both Phelps and Gott approached the driver's side window of the truck, and Phelps asked Coleman to produce a driver's license-telling him he could go to jail for failing to produce a license during a traffic stop. ECF No. 27, Ex. A at 09:51:00. After Coleman's noncompliance, Phelps opened the truck door, took Coleman's hand, and said, "climb on out, I don't want to drag you out of the vehicle." Id. at 09:51:17; contra ECF No. 16 ¶ 8 (alleging that Phelps said "[y]ou're under arrest" while removing Coleman from the vehicle). At the same time, the two officers grabbed each of Coleman's arms and moved him to the side of the truck. ECF No. 27, Ex. A at 09:51:17; contra ECF No. 16 ¶ 8 (alleging that Phelps "aggressively grabbed Plaintiff by the hand (pressure point), neck and shoulder area" and twisted his right arm while Gott twisted his left arm). The officers forcefully placed Coleman's hands on the truck and frisked him after he reached for his back pocket. ECF No. 27, Ex. A at 09:51:26. The officers searched inside at least some of Coleman's pockets during the frisk and seized a wallet. ECF No. 16 ¶ 9. Inside the wallet, the officers found Coleman's Virginia driver's license. Id. Phelps escorted Coleman by his shirtsleeve behind the truck and ordered him to sit on the roadside guardrail. ECF No. 27, Ex. A at 09:52:40; contra ECF No. 16 ¶ 8 (alleging that Phelps "forcibly carried" Coleman to the guardrail). At this point, Officer Cress arrived on the scene. ECF No. 16 ¶ 9.

         The officers stood around Coleman on the guardrail. Id. ¶ 10.[4] Phelps and Gott took turns searching the truck's interior. Id. ¶ 9.[5] Phelps took the keys out of the truck and removed the ignition key from the key ring because the ring held a little knife. Id. ¶ 11. The officers informed Coleman that his truck would be impounded because it could not be legally operated without a rear plate. Id. Phelps asked Coleman if he wanted anything from the truck before it was towed, and Coleman mentioned only an unsealed, stamped letter which Phelps brought to him. Id. ¶ 12. The officers handed Coleman a ticket, told him to use his cell phone to call a friend who could pick him up, placed the key ring containing the little knife thirty feet up the road from the truck, and terminated the encounter. Id. ¶¶ 10, 13.

         In the days following the encounter, Coleman talked to Sheriff Mike Evans over the phone. Id. ¶ 14. Coleman asked if the Sheriffs Department could return the medication left inside his truck. Id. He also expressed his concern that the vehicle was illegally impounded, but Evans did not remedy those concerns. Id. Coleman was charged criminally for driving an uninsured vehicle, failing to attach registration plates, and operating an unregistered vehicle on the highway. Id. ¶ 15. The criminal proceedings were subsequently terminated in favor of Coleman. Id Coleman raises the following claims against one or more Defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983: unreasonable search and seizure; deprivation of liberty without due process; deprivation of property without due process; excessive force; false arrest; a takings claim; and, failure to implement appropriate police customs and practices. ECF No. 16 ¶¶ 23-44. Coleman also raises additional federal claims against the three officers present during the stop and Sheriff Evans for conspiring against Coleman pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3), id. ¶¶ 45-47, against the Sheriff Department for neglecting to prevent a conspiracy pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1986, id. ¶¶ 48-53, and against the three officers and Evans for conspiring to deprive constitutional rights pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 241, id. ¶¶ 54-55. Coleman raises the following claims against one or more Defendants pursuant to Maryland law: assault; battery; intentional infliction of emotional distress; false arrest; malicious prosecution; abuse of process; false imprisonment; and, gross negligence. Id. ¶¶ 56-96. Lastly, Coleman alleges a violation of Article 24 of Maryland's Declaration of Rights. Id. ¶¶ 71-75.

         Coleman seeks the following relief: a declaration that his rights were violated; an injunction ordering Defendants to avoid Coleman on sight and forbidding them from detaining him; compensatory and punitive damages; statutory damages and reimbursement of funds paid or lost; and court costs. Id. ¶¶ 97-102.

         Coleman filed his Amended Complaint on June 12, 2015. Defendants have filed a Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment. The Court sent Plaintiff a letter dated June 1, 2016 that notified him of Defendants' motion and provided him seventeen days to file a response. ECF No. 28. Coleman replied with a letter dated June 21, 2016, ECF No. 29, requesting clarification of his need to respond to a pending motion. The Court construed Mr.

         Coleman's letter as a Motion for Extension of Time to Respond and granted Coleman thirty days from June 24, 2016 to file a response. ECF No. 30. Coleman filed his response on July 29, 2016. ECF No. 31.


         A. Standard of Review

         Defendants have styled their motion as a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), or in the alternative, a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56. "A motion styled in this manner implicates the court's discretion under Rule 12(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure." McCray v. Md. DOT., No. ELH-11-3732, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8513, at * 15 (D. Md. Jan. 16, 2013); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d) ("If, on a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) or 12(c), matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court, the motion must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56."). Pursuant to Rule 12(d), the Court has discretion to determine whether to accept evidence outside the pleadings, and thus convert a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to a Rule 56 motion. Id. at *16. Typically, all parties must then be given the opportunity to present all material pertinent to the motion, Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d), but when the moving party captions its motion "in the alternative" and presents evidence outside the pleadings for the Court's consideration, the parties are deemed to have notice that the Court may treat the motion as one for summary judgment under the parameters of Rule 12(d). McCray, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8513, at *17.

         In the instant case, Defendants' motion relies heavily on video footage from a dashboard camera in Gott's car. Coleman likewise references the video in his Amended Complaint and had full opportunity to respond to this evidence. Thus, it appears that both parties agree the video is helpful to the Court's resolution of this motion and neither side has requested additional discovery in this regard. See McCray, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8513, at *16 ("In general, courts are guided by whether consideration of extraneous material 'is likely to facilitate the disposition of the action, ' and 'whether discovery prior to the utilization of the summary judgment procedure' is necessary.") (citation omitted). Accordingly, conversion of the motion to a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56 is appropriate.

         Summary judgment is appropriate only when the Court, viewing the record as a whole and in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, determines that there exists no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-24 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., Ml U.S. 242, 24850 (1986). Once a party has properly filed evidence supporting the motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party may not rest upon mere allegations in the pleadings, but must instead set forth specific facts illustrating genuine issues for trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-24.

         The Court "must review the motion, even if unopposed, and determine from what it has before it whether the moving party is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law." Custer v. Pan American Life Ins. Co., 12 F.3d 410, 416 (4th Cir. 1993). If the non-movant's version of the facts are "so utterly discredited by the record, " in this case the dashboard recording, "that no reasonable jury could have believed him, " the facts should be viewed in the light depicted by the recording. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380-81 (2007) (finding that the courts below should not have relied on a "visible fiction" refuted by a videotape). Finally, "a pro se complaint, 'however inartfully pleaded, ' must be held to 'less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'" Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976) (quoting Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972)).

         B. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Claims (Counts I-V)[6]

         Section 1983 provides a remedy against any person who, under color of state law, deprives another of rights protected by the United States Constitution. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012); Brown v. Bailey, No. RDB-11-01901, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81664, at *14 (D. Md. June 13, 2012) ("A civil rights action under Section 1983 allows 'a party who has been deprived of a federal right under the color of state law to seek relief."') (quoting City of Monterey v. Del Monte Dunes, 526 U.S. 687, 707 (1999)). "To state a claim under Section 1983, a plaintiff must allege that: 1) a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States was violated and 2) the alleged violation was committed by a person acting under the color of state law." Brown, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81664, at * 15-16 (citing West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988)).

         1. Unreasonable Search and Seizure (Count I)

         Defendants seek summary judgment on Count I which alleges, inter alia, unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments during the traffic stop. ECF No. 16¶26.

         a. The Initial Traffic

         Stop Plaintiff alleges that Officer Gott lacked a legally sufficient basis to conduct a warrantless stop of Plaintiff s vehicle. Id. A warrantless traffic stop requires, at minimum, a "reasonable suspicion, based on specific and articulable facts, of unlawful conduct." United States v. Hassan El, 5 F.3d 726, 729 (4th Cir. 1993) (citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968)).

         In Maryland, it is illegal to operate a vehicle "on any highway in [Maryland], unless there is attached to the vehicle and displayed on it. . . plates issued for the vehicle ... for the current regulatory period .. . ." Md. Code Ann., Transp. § 13-411(d)(1) (West 2016). "[O]ne plate shall be attached to the front and the other on the rear of the vehicle." § 13-411(a). In his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff concedes that he was driving along Route 260, a Maryland highway, immediately prior to the traffic stop. ECF No. 16 ¶ 6. Plaintiff also concedes that he was driving his truck without plates. Id. Additionally, the dashboard video shows that the truck was missing a rear license plate, and that the missing plate was visible from Gott's vantage point immediately prior to the decision to stop. ECF No. 27, Ex. A. Thus, Gott had reasonable suspicion to stop Coleman's vehicle for a violation of Maryland law because he observed first-hand the lack of a rear license plate. See U.S. v. Johnson, 734 F.3d 270, 275 (4th Cir. 2013) (finding that officers had reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop after observing a vehicle with illegal license plates under Maryland law). The Court grants summary judgment in favor of Defendants regarding the alleged illegality of the initial stop in Count I.

         b. The Removal of Coleman from His Vehicle

         Plaintiff alleges the officers violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure by opening the driver's door and removing him from the truck. Id. ¶ 26. The Fourth Amendment "reasonableness" analysis requires balancing "the public interest and the individual's right to personal security free from arbitrary interference by law officers." Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 109 (1977) (quoting United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, 878 (1975)); United States v. Sakyi, 160 F.3d 164, 167 (4th Cir. 1998). Applying this balancing test to Terry traffic stops, the Supreme Court has found that, "once a motor vehicle has been lawfully detained for a traffic violation, the police officers may order the driver to get out of the vehicle without violating the Fourth Amendment's proscription of unreasonable searches and seizures." Mimms, 434 U.S. at 111 n.6. The public interest in an officer's safety outweighs the "mere inconvenience" to the driver from being forced to exit the vehicle. See Id. at 111. "A brief but complete restriction of liberty is valid under Terry." United States v. Moore, 817 F.2d 1105, 1108 (4th Cir. 1987) (citing United States v. Bautista, 684 F.2d 1286, 1289 (9th Cir. 1982)). Accordingly, the officers had the authority to exert some physical force to effectuate the order for Coleman to step out of his vehicle.[7]

         Coleman's truck was lawfully stopped for a traffic violation. Pursuant to Mimms, the officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment's proscription of unreasonable searches and seizures by ordering Coleman from the truck then physically removing him upon noncompliance. The reasonableness of the officers' actions stands as a lawful continuation of the initial Terry stop. Thus, the Court grants summary judgment in favor of Defendants regarding the Count I allegation of unreasonable seizure when Coleman was removed from the vehicle.

         c. The Frisk of Coleman and Wallet Search

         Plaintiff alleges the officers violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from an illegal search by performing a patdown search of his person shortly after he exited the truck. See ECF No. 16 ¶ 26. "To justify a patdown of the driver or a passenger during a traffic stop ... the police must harbor reasonable suspicion that the person subjected to the frisk is armed and dangerous." Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323, 327 (2009).

         Coleman alleges that Gott and Phelps carried him to the side of the truck then began "tearing through every pocket of shirt, coat and pants after forcibly placing his hands upon his truck." ECF No. 16 ¶ 9. The dashboard video, however, provides crucial context absent from Plaintiffs Amended Complaint for the officers' decision to commence the body patdown. Immediately prior to the frisk and while standing by the side of the truck, Coleman reached with his right hand into his right back pocket. ECF No. 18, Ex. A. at 09:51:26.

         Observing Coleman reaching toward his back pocket, like observing a bulge in a jacket, provided Gott and Phelps a reasonable suspicion that Coleman was armed and dangerous and reaching for a weapon, which was sufficient to justify a patdown. See Mimms 434 U.S. at 112 (finding frisk of driver previously ordered out of his vehicle to be lawful because the police's observation of an ...

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