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Williams v. United States

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 10, 2018

HOLLY ANN WILLIAMS Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          PAULA XINIS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending in this civil rights case is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendants Anthony Pierelli and the United States of America. ECF No. 53. The issues are fully briefed and the Court now rules pursuant to Local Rule 105.6 because no hearing is necessary. For the following reasons, the motion is granted.

         I. PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The facts as summarized are taken from the record and construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff Holly Ann Williams (“Williams”). On January 14, 2014, United States Park Police Officer Anthony Pierelli (“Pierelli”) pulled over a car registered to Williams on Suitland Parkway in Maryland. ECF No. 53-3 at 29; ECF No. 53-2 at 16 (Williams Dep. 60:7- 11). Williams, who is legally blind, was sitting in the back seat between her two daughters, while her father sat in the front passenger seat. ECF No. 53-2 at 15 (Williams Dep. 56:13-19). Another person was driving the family to a doctor's appointment for Williams' father. ECF No. 53-2 at 11 (Williams Dep. 39:3-40:19). One of Williams' daughters was nine months pregnant at the time. ECF No. 53-2 at 13 (Williams Dep. 48:6-20).

         Pierelli pulled the car over because he observed a problem with the validation stickers (or “tabs”) affixed to the vehicle's license plate. ECF No. 53-3 at 29; ECF No. 53-2 at 16 (Williams Dep. 60:7-11). The tabs on the license plate of the vehicle-one of which is supposed to reflect the month and the other the year of the vehicle registration's expiration date-appeared to be improper. As Pierelli explained, the “10” sticker and the “14” sticker on the license plate both had white backgrounds, which indicated to Pierelli that both were year tabs, and so the license plate did not have a valid month tab affixed to it. ECF No. 53-3 at 28-29; ECF No. 53-3 at 6 (Pierelli Dep. 17:1-14). Pierelli confirmed during the stop that the vehicle was validly registered, but that the correct registration expiration date was June 2014. This meant that the “14” sticker reflected the correct year, but the “10” sticker, in fact, did not reflect the correct month. ECF No. 53-3 at 18 (Pierelli Dep. 66:15-21); ECF No. 53-5 at 1.

         Prior to pulling over the vehicle, Pierelli also ran the vehicle's license plate number through a law enforcement database accessible via his patrol car's laptop. This search alerted Pierelli to a Frederick County arrest warrant that was keyed to the car's registration. The warrant was for a Holly Ann Williams, which matched the name of the vehicle's registered owner. ECF No. 53-3 at 5, 9 (Pierelli Dep. 14:11-14, 19:2-20:11); see ECF No. 53-3 at 29. No. other biographic information was available to Pierelli through this database. ECF No. 53-3 at 8-9 (Pierelli Dep. 28:10-32:3); ECF No. 53-3 at 21 (Pierelli Dep. 79:15-18).

         During the traffic stop, Pierelli called Frederick County to confirm that the warrant was still outstanding and for “Holly Ann Williams.” ECF No. 53-3 at 12-13 (Pierelli Dep. 44:9- 45:2); ECF No. 56-8; see ECF No. 53-3 at 20-21 (Pierelli Dep. 76:19-77:22). Pierelli was not provided additional information about the wanted individual while on the phone with Frederick County. ECF No. 53-3 at 12-13 (Pierelli Dep. 44:20-47:3).

         After Pierelli confirmed that a Holly Ann Williams was in the vehicle and was the vehicle's registered owner, he requested a female officer to respond as backup to assist with Williams' arrest. ECF No. 53-3 at 7 (Pierelli Dep. 22:22-23:9). An unidentified Prince George's County female officer responded. ECF No. 53-3 at 20 (Pierelli Dep 76:6-18); see also ECF No. 53-3 at 11 (Pierelli Dep. 37:6-20). According to Williams, the female officer asked Williams if someone was suing her in Washington County. ECF No. 53-2 (Williams Dep. 119:12-121:11). Williams further notes that a second warrant had been active for a “Holly Ann Williams” in Washington County, but Pierelli attested that he based his arrest only on the Frederick County warrant connected to the vehicle registration, and that he did not know of a Washington County warrant at the time of the arrest. ECF No. 53-3 at 25-26 (Pierelli Dep. 96:18-98:8, 99:8-99:19).

         Williams testified that Pierelli never told her about a warrant, but she nonetheless protested generally that he had the wrong person. Pierelli did not attempt to verify Williams' claims of mistaken identity. ECF No. 53-3 at 21-22 (Pierelli Dep. 79:19-81:10). When Pierelli handcuffed Williams, she asked to be handcuffed with her hands in front of her instead of behind her back because she suffers from arm and shoulder pain due to a stroke. ECF No. 53-2 at 20 (Williams Dep. 74:6-11). Pierelli refused, and the pain caused Williams to collapse. ECF No. 53-2 at 20 (Williams Dep. 74:12-20); see ECF No. 53-3 at 22 (Pierelli Dep. 83:12-18). Pierelli pulled Williams to her feet and put her in the back of his police car. ECF No. 53-2 at 20 (Williams Dep. 74:17-75:1). Pierelli then drove Williams to the Upper Marlboro Detention Center (“Upper Marlboro”), and reported their arrival at 3:14 p.m. ECF No. 53-5 at 2.

         While Williams was being held, full warrant information was faxed from Frederick County to Upper Marlboro. ECF No. 53-2 at 23 (Williams Dep. 87:6-8); see ECF No. 53-2 at 23 (Williams Dep. 86:9-18). This information revealed that the Frederick County warrant was issued for a white woman born in 1984. ECF No. 56-14. Williams is African American and more than twenty years older than the individual identified in the warrant. ECF No. 53-3 at 1. Williams estimates that she was detained for two hours before she learned the warrant was for another “Holly Ann Williams, ” and was not released until an additional two hours had passed. ECF No. 53-2 at 24, 26 (Williams Dep. 92:6-11, 100:5-18). Since having mistakenly arrested Williams, Pierelli now takes additional measures to verify the identity of a suspect prior to arresting the person on a warrant. ECF No. 53-3 at 12 (Pierelli Dep. 42:22-43:3).

         As a result of this unfortunate incident, Williams has sued Pierelli and the United States Park Police, alleging false arrest (Count I), false imprisonment (Count II), a Fourth Amendment claim of unlawful arrest and detention under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971) (Count III), and respondeat superior (Count IV). Defendants previously moved to dismiss the action in its entirety, which this Court denied. ECF No. 32 at 10-12 ECF No. 33.

         Defendants now move for summary judgment on all claims. See ECF No. 53. Defendants principally argue that Pierelli is entitled to qualified immunity as to the Bivens cause of action, and that Williams failed to establish successful tort claims. Williams counters that genuine issues of disputed fact preclude immunity, and that Pierelli acted with malice during her stop and arrest. For the reasons below, the Court GRANTS Defendants' motion.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. ...


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