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Szathmary v. Town of Elkton

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 31, 2017

ROBERT SZATHMARY, et al., Plaintiffs,
TOWN OF ELKTON, et al., Defendants.


          George L. Russell, III United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants', Sergeant Scott Knauer, Sergeant Jason Hoffman, Officer Thomas Newton, Officer Matthew Nussle, Officer Lindsey Ziegenfuss (the “Officers”), [1] and Town of Elkton, Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 36). Also before the Court is Plaintiffs', Robert and Alyce Brooke Szathmary, Cross Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 37). This 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action arises from the Officers' traffic stop of the Szathmarys in Elkton, Maryland and the Officers' subsequent detention of Robert Szathmary. The Motion is ripe for disposition, and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D.Md. 2016). For the reasons outlined below, the Court will grant Defendants' Motion and deny the Szathmarys' Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND[2]

         A. Newton's Stop of the Szathmarys

         On June 11, 2012, at approximately 10:10 p.m., Newton was doing speed enforcement on Route 40 in Elkton, Maryland, between Landing Lane and a bridge to the west. (Newton Dep. 19-20, Feb. 18, 2016, ECF No. 36-3). The Szathmarys, driving a Chevrolet Impala, passed Newton traveling forty-seven miles per hour, two miles above the speed limit. (Newton Dep. 22, 25). Newton began following the Szathmarys and pulled them over soon after. (Id. at 24). After stopping the Szathmarys, Newton approached the passenger's side of their car. (Compl. ¶ 34, ECF No. 1).[3]Newton informed the Szathmarys that their license plates were registered to a Nissan, rather than a Chevrolet, and that they were going forty-seven miles per hour where the speed limit was forty-five miles per hour. (Robert Szathmary Dep. 99-100, Feb. 17, 2016, ECF No. 36-10; Alyce Szathmary Dep. 13-14, Feb. 17, 2016, ECF No. 36-11). Newton asked Mr. Szathmary for his driver's license and registration. (Newton Dep. 28).

         While waiting for Mr. Szathmary to provide the car's registration, Newton began asking the Szathmarys other questions, including where they were going and why they had a baseball bat in the car. (Id. at 31). They said they were going to Lewes, Delaware or Cape May, New Jersey. (Id. at 31- 32). After giving the registration to Newton, Mr. Szathmary informed Newton that his driver's license was in the trunk. (Id. at 30). After Newton told Mr. Szathmary to get his driver's license from the trunk, Mr. Szathmary advised Newton that there were also two unloaded firearms in the trunk. (Compl. ¶¶ 39, 40). Newton called for backup. (Newton Dep. 43).

         B. The First Search

         Between 10:16 p.m. and 10:22 p.m., Ziegenfuss, Nussle, Nussle's K-9 dog Rommel, and Officer Leffew arrived.[4] (Cross Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 6 [“CAD Report”] at 2, ECF No. 38-6). Newton brought Mr. Szathmary to the trunk, Mr. Szathmary gave Newton permission to open the trunk, and Mr. Szathmary gave Newton his driver's license. (Newton Dep. 46). Newton secured Mr. Szathmary's handguns. (Id. at 45-46). Newton called dispatch and relayed the handguns' serial numbers at 10:22 p.m. (Id. at 49; CAD Report at 2). He also observed loose ammunition in the car's passenger compartment. (Newton Dep. 58-59). Shortly thereafter, Newton asked Nussle to do a K-9 scan of the Szathmarys' car for drugs. (Cross Mot. Summ. J. at 8, ECF No. 38; Nussle Dep. 36, Feb. 18, 2017, ECF No. 36-5). Nussle brought Rommel to the Szathmarys' car for the K-9 scan. (Nussle Dep. 36-39). Rommel alerted near the car's passenger-side door handle to the presence of drugs. (Id. at 39-41).

         After Rommel alerted, Newton searched the Szathmarys' car by performing a “lunge, reach, grab” search of the front and rear passenger compartments, the areas underneath the seats, the glove compartment, the center console, and the floor of the back seats (the “First Search”). (Newton Dep. 78-79). He did not find anything illegal. (Id. at 80). During the search at 10:32 p.m., and again at 10:36 p.m., one of the Officers called dispatch and told dispatch the vehicle identification number (VIN). (CAD Report at 2). At 10:36 p.m., dispatch informed Newton that there was no discrepancy with the car's registration after all. (Cross Mot. Summ. J. at 9). With Hoffman's permission, Newton decided nonetheless to bring the car to the police station for another search. (Newton Dep. 80; Hoffman Dep. 16, Feb. 19, 2016, ECF No. 36-8). Ziegenfuss patted down Mrs. Szathmary and handcuffed her. (Ziegenfuss Dep. 42-43, Feb. 19, 2016, ECF No. 36-7). Ziegenfuss drove Mrs. Szathmary to the Elkton police station. (Id. at 41). Newton drove Mr. Szathmary to the police station. (Newton Dep. 81-82). By this point, the length of the traffic stop was approximately thirty minutes. (Robert Szathmary Dep. 67; Alyce Szathmary Dep. 22).

         C. The Second Search

         At the police station, Ziegenfuss told Mrs. Szathmary she was released. (Alyce Szathmary Dep. 24). Mrs. Szathmary remained in the police station lobby. (Id. at 24-25). Newton, meanwhile, detained Mr. Szathmary in a holding cell. (Newton Dep. 86). Newton then searched the car again, this time looking underneath the hood, searching the areas around the front and back seats, feeling underneath the dashboard, opening the glove compartment, and searching the trunk (the “Second Search”). (Id. at 90-91). Again, Newton did not find anything illegal. (Id. at 110-12). Newton released Mr. Szathmary and returned the car to the Szathmarys. (Id. at 103-11). According to Newton, he released Mr. Szathmary at 12:45 a.m. (Id. at 87). According to the Szathmarys, however, he released Mr. Szathmary at 4:47 a.m., because they arrived in Dover, Delaware at sunrise, sunrise was at 5:47 a.m., and Dover is an hour from Elkton. (See Alyce Szathmary Dep. 34; Cross Mot. Summ. J. Exs. 9 & 10, ECF Nos. 38-9, 38-10).

         D. Procedural History

         The Szathmarys filed the present action against Defendants on July 11, 2014. (ECF No. 1). In their six-count Complaint, they allege: Custom and/or Policy in Violation of Constitutional Rights Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count I); Violation of Constitutional Rights Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count II); False Arrest (Count III); False Imprisonment (Count IV); Battery (Count V); and Attorney's Fees and Costs (Count VI). (Compl.). On April 15, 2016, Defendants moved for summary judgment on all counts. (ECF No. 36). On May 6, 2016, the Szathmarys filed a Cross Motion for Summary Judgment and opposed Defendants' Motion. (ECF No. 37). On May 20, 2016, Defendants opposed the Szathmarys' Cross Motion and filed a Reply in further support of their Motion, (ECF No. 39). On June 2, 2016, the Szathmarys filed a Reply. (ECF No. 40).


         A. Standard of Review

         In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the Court views the facts in a light most favorable to the nonmovant, drawing all justifiable inferences in that party's favor. Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 586 (2009); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986) (citing Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 158-59 (1970)). Summary judgment is proper when the movant demonstrates, through “particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . . admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials, ” that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c)(1)(A). Significantly, a party must be able to present the materials it cites in “a form that would be admissible in evidence, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3), and supporting affidavits and declarations “must be made on personal knowledge” and “set out facts that would be admissible in evidence, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(4).

         Once a motion for summary judgment is properly made and supported, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to identify evidence showing there is a genuine dispute of material fact. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986). The nonmovant cannot create a genuine dispute of material fact “through mere speculation or the building of one inference upon another.” Beale v. Hardy, 769 F.2d 213, 214 (4th Cir. 1985) (citation omitted).

         A “material fact” is one that might affect the outcome of a party's case. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; see also JKC Holding Co. v. Wash. Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001) (citing Hooven-Lewis v. Caldera, 249 F.3d 259, 265 (4th Cir. 2001)). Whether a fact is considered to be “material” is determined by the substantive law, and “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; accord Hooven-Lewis, 249 F.3d at 265. A “genuine” dispute concerning a “material” fact arises when the evidence is sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If the nonmovant has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case where she has the burden of proof, “there can be ‘no genuine [dispute] as to any material fact, ' since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).

         Here, the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The court, therefore, must “review each motion separately on its own merits to ‘determine whether either of the parties deserves judgment as a matter of law.” Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Philip Morris Inc. v. Harshbarger, 122 F.3d 58, 62 n.4 (1st Cir. 1997)). Moreover, “[w]hen considering each individual motion, the court must take care to ‘resolve all factual disputes and any competing, rational inferences in the light most favorable' to the party opposing that motion.” Id. (quoting Wightman v. Springfield Terminal Ry. Co., 100 F.3d 228, 230 (1st Cir. 1996)). This Court, however, must also abide by its affirmative obligation to prevent “factually unsupported claims and defenses” from going to trial. Drewitt v. Pratt, 999 F.2d 774, 778-79 (4th Cir. 1993) (citing Felty v. Graves-Humphreys Co., 818 F.2d 1126, 1128 (4th Cir. 1987). If the evidence presented by the nonmovant is “merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (citations omitted).

         B. Analysis

         Defendants argue they are entitled to qualified immunity. The doctrine of qualified immunity shields government officials “from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). In the Fourth Circuit, courts should apply the qualified immunity doctrine “with due respect for the perspective of police officers on the scene and not with the greater leisure and acquired wisdom of judicial hindsight.” Gooden v. Howard Cty., 954 F.2d 960, 964-65 (4th Cir. 1992).

         Qualified immunity “is an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability.” Mitchell v. Forsyth,472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985). The United States Supreme Court has “made clear that the ‘driving force' behind creation of the qualified immunity doctrine was a desire to ensure that ‘insubstantial claims against government officials [will] be resolved prior to discovery.'” Pearson v. Callahan,555 U.S. 223, 231-32 (2009) (quoting Anderson v. Creighton,483 U.S. 635, 640 n.2 (1987)). “Because the doctrine seeks to protect government officials from the burdens of trial” and trial preparation, courts must resolve qualified immunity questions “at the earliest possible stage in ...

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