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Dobbs v. Townsend

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 19, 2019

TYRAN DOBBS, Plaintiff,
v.
THOMAS TOWNSEND, et. al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RICHARD D. BENNETT, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Tyran Dobbs (“Dobbs”) brought a four-count Complaint against Defendant Sgt. Thomas Townsend (“Sgt. Townsend”), PFC Michael Pickett (“PFC Pickett”), PFC James Tippett (“PFC Tippett”), and PFC Brian Reger (“PFC Reger”), (collectively, the “Defendants”), asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Human Rights, and Maryland common law. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) Specifically, Dobbs alleges that the Defendants, officers of the Howard County Maryland Police Department, used excessive force against him that constitutes a violation of his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, the Maryland State Declaration of Rights, and also constitutes the common law tort of battery. (Id.) Dobbs further alleges that the Defendants falsely imprisoned him. (Id.) Now pending before this Court is Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 21). The parties’ submissions have been reviewed, and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). For the reasons that follow, this Court has determined that Defendants’ use of force was objectively reasonable, Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity, Defendants’ Motion shall be GRANTED, and Judgment shall be entered in favor of the Defendants in this case.

         BACKGROUND

         The relevant events in this case were triggered by a tactic known as “swatting, ” which is “the act of placing a 911 call ‘in which a false report of a violent crime is made to elicit a police Special Weapons and Tactics squad (“SWAT”) response to the physical address of a targeted individual . . . .’”, Kimberlin v. Nat’l Bloggers Club, No. GJH–13–3059, 2015 WL 1242763 at *1, n.1 (D. Md., Mar. 17, 2015) (citations omitted). In this case, a call was placed to the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center’s Terrorism Hotline (the “Hotline”) by an individual purporting to be “Tyrone, ” stating “that he had a loaded gun, several bags of plastic explosives, and had taken three hostages.” (Mot. Ex. 1, Stip. Facts 2, ECF No. 21-3.)[1] The caller then demanded cash to be delivered to the specific address and apartment where Dobbs lived. (Id.) The caller then threatened to start killing hostages if his demands were not met within 15 minutes. (Id.) The call was placed on February 18, 2015 at about 4:00 p.m. (Id.)

         The Hotline contacted the Howard County Police Department, indicating that a caller with a British accent, identifying himself as “Tyrone” had made specific threats, including execution of three hostages unless $15, 000 was delivered to the address provided. (Id.; Mot. Ex. 2, Police Report 2, ECF No. 21-4.) Patrol officers were dispatched to the designated address, where they set up a perimeter, while other officers collected intelligence such as the identity of the residents and criminal histories. (Mot. Mem. 4, ECF No. 21-1 (citing Mot. Exs. 3, 17).) Police records revealed that Tyran Dobbs lived at that address, and he had a history of drug use and resisting arrest. (Mot. Ex. 3, Police Report 6, ECF No. 21-5.)

         By about 4:50 p.m., a request was made for the Tactical Section and Negotiators. (Id.) The tactical team members received text messages on their cellular phones alerting them of the hostage situation, and as the team began to arrive, they were sent to Dobb’s apartment building where one team began evacuating residents from neighboring apartments around 6:00 p.m. (Id. at 5.) A second team[2] was stationed near the rear of the apartment with a Bearcat armored vehicle, where they had a view of the back patio and sliding glass door. (Id.) They observed someone matching Dobbs’ description crawling around on the floor of the apartment and reported seeing a young girl playing on an electronic device. (Id.) There was also a team stationed in the next-door apartment, and a second Bearcat armored vehicle was set up at the front of the building illuminating the windows. (Id. at 7.) The Mobile Command Post was positioned in the parking lot of the Asian Marketplace, about a quarter of a mile away and out of sight. (Id. at 6-7.)

         An interview with Dobbs’ father revealed that there were likely three people in the residence with Dobbs, and there was a shotgun inside the residence. (Id. at 5.) Dobbs’ father was unaware of a handgun or explosives inside the residence but could not be certain. (Id.) By about 6:20 p.m., the negotiators were able to get a telephone number and called a female who had been seen inside the residence. (Id.) She stated: “I know why you are here” and indicated she would come out of the apartment.[3] (Id.) A few minutes later, she and the young girl exited the residence through the sliding glass door, where she confirmed that there was a third female in the back bedroom. (Id.) According to the police report, she advised that she did not believe there were explosives but was not sure about guns. (Id.)

         Attempts to contact the third female in the residence were unsuccessful, but the officers learned that she had failed to show up for work at 5:00 p.m. (Id. at 5-6.) Dobbs was contacted at 6:42 p.m. by cell phone and negotiations began. (Id. at 6.) Dobbs testified that he and his girlfriend had been sleeping, he got up to find clothes to put on, he told his girlfriend to get up and get dressed, and he told the negotiator that he would come out. (Pl.’s Resp. Ex. 16, Dobbs’ Dep. 38, ECF No. 24-16.) Dobbs came to the door but did not come out or put up his hands. (Mot. Ex. 3, Police Report 6, ECF No. 21-5.) The officers had not seen and did not know the status of the third female in the apartment. (Id.) At 6:46 p.m., Dobbs came back to the door but did not obey commands from the police officers. (Id.) A neighbor provided eye-witness testimony, confirming that Dobbs came out on the patio, put his hands up but then reentered the apartment, and the second time he came out, Dobbs did not keep his hands up as ordered. (Mot. Ex. 5, Morgan Aff., ECF No. 21-7.) Dobbs had one hand on the phone and the other under his shirt at his waist band and began to go back into the apartment. (Mot. Ex. 3, Police Report 6, ECF No. 21-5.) At this point, PFC Pickett deployed a 37mm baton round, i.e., a rubber bullet, at Dobbs to prevent him from reentering the apartment. (Id.) It hit Dobbs in his torso, and as he reacted, a second round hit him in the face.[4] (Id.) The team moved in and took Dobbs into custody, [5] and Dobbs’ girlfriend was found unharmed in the bedroom. (Id.) Dobbs was treated by the Tactical Medic at the scene and was transported by ambulance to University of Maryland Shock Trauma. (Id.)

         Dobbs filed the instant lawsuit on February 2, 2018, almost three years after this incident, alleging that Defendants should have known that they were not responding to a hostage situation before they used force. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) Dobbs brings four claims against all Defendants:

• Count I – Battery
• Count II – False Imprisonment
• Count III – Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments
• Count IV – Violation of Maryland State Declaration of Rights

         On November 27, 2018, Defendants filed the pending motion for summary judgment, which is fully briefed and ripe for decision. For the following reasons, this Court holds that under the circumstances, Defendants’ use of force was objectively reasonable, Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity, Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 21) shall be GRANTED, and Judgment shall be entered in favor of the Defendants in this case.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows 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(c). A material fact is one that “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Libertarian Party of Va. v. Judd, 718 F.3d 308, 313 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A genuine issue over a material fact exists “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. When considering a motion for summary judgment, a judge’s function is limited to determining whether sufficient evidence exists on a claimed factual dispute to warrant submission of the matter for resolution at trial. Id. at 249. Trial courts in the Fourth Circuit have an “affirmative ...


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