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Dugan v. Wright

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Dublin Division

March 30, 2018



         Before the Court in the captioned matter are motions for summary judgment filed by each of the Defendants. Upon consideration of the record, the parties' briefs, and the relevant law, the motions for summary judgment (doc. nos. 50 and 59) are GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Overview

         This case arises out of the arrests of Plaintiffs Evan ! Dugan and Isaac Huffaker in the early morning hours of August 28, 2014, in Milan, Georgia. At that time, Defendant Jonathan Wright, the sole police officer for the town of Milan, arrested Plaintiffs for criminal trespass and burglary of the Milan Truck and Tractor Supply Store (WMTT"). (See generally Pls.' Br. in Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J., Doc. No. 61, Ex. B.)

         The Court has been greatly aided by the video taken from Officer Wright's vehicular dashboard camera.[1] (Def. Wright's Mot. for Summ. J., Doc. No. 50, Ex. C.) Officer Wright also wore a microphone on his person that picked up almost all of his conversation while the video camera was recording. Accordingly, while most of the activity cannot be seen on the video, Defendants' actions can be readily discerned through the audio portion, particularly when viewed in conjunction with Officer Wright's Incident Report (Wright Dep., Doc. No. 57, Ex. 8), the deposition testimony of the parties, and the photographs and drawn maps attached as exhibits thereto (Doc. Nos. 55-58.)

         While the Court must view evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, it need not do so when Plaintiffs' version of events is plainly contradicted by the video and audio of the incident. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378-81 (2007). Accordingly, the Court will detail the factual background from a chronological description of the video interspersed with deposition testimony and the admitted facts set forth in Defendant Wright's Statement of Undisputed Facts ("DSUF"), doc. no. 50-1, when necessary for context. For the most part, the facts are not in dispute. Where they are, the Court will address the significance of said "dispute" in the discussion section.

         The Court notes that the video begins after Officer Wright's initial encounter with Plaintiffs. The video recording supplied begins as one of the Plaintiffs is seen with his hands resting on the patrol vehicle's hood while Officer Wright sat inside and received information from a dispatcher about Plaintiffs' driver's licenses. The video begins at time mark 0:00 and runs continuously to time mark 1:28:30. At about the 56 minute mark, Plaintiffs were told that they were going to jail. Thus, the length of Officer Wright's investigation into Plaintiffs' conduct that evening was 56 minutes.[2]

         B. Factual Background

         Plaintiffs Dugan and Huffaker were driving around in a Chevrolet Lumina in the late evening hours of August 27, 2014. (DSUF ¶¶ 5-6.) Plaintiffs entered Milan traveling eastbound on Highway 280. (Id. ¶ 13 .)

         As Plaintiffs drove past the MTT, the front of which faces Highway 280, they could hear an alarm sounding. (Huffaker Dep., Doc. No. 56, at 90.) Plaintiffs turned left onto Main Street, which is past the MTT, and then turned left again onto Lee Street. (DSUF ¶ 15.) The back of the MTT may be accessed by a dirt road leading off of the left side of Lee Street. Before reaching this dirt road, however, there is a peanut warehouse, also on the left side of Lee Street. (See Lawson Dep., Doc. No. 58, Exs. 1 & 3, Huffaker Dep., Doc. No. 56, Exs. 2 & 3.) According to Plaintiffs, Mr. Huffaker recognized that they had turned left off of Main Street too soon, so he instructed Mr. Dugan to turn around. (DSUF ¶ 16; Huffaker Dep. at 79-81.) Mr. Dugan turned left off of Lee Street onto a dirt path near the peanut warehouse, making a U-turn between drying bins that were located under a drying shed. (Huffaker Dep. at 82-83; DSUF ¶ 17.) After making the U-turn and attempting to re-enter Lee Street, Mr. Dugan drove the Lumina into a ditch that paralleled Lee Street, causing the car to become stuck. (DSUF ¶ 18.)

         Plaintiffs attempted to get the car out of ditch by pushing from the back and the front. (Huffaker Dep. at 89.) Then they walked to a gas station located nearby on Main Street. Plaintiffs could still hear the alarm. (Id. at 91-92.) They would later tell Officer Wright that they walked to the gas station because they thought it would look suspicious if they were out in the area of the alarm on Lee Street.[3](Id. at 146-47.)

         At the gas station, Plaintiffs asked a bystander how long the alarm had been going off. The bystander informed them that the alarm had been going off for 15 to 20 minutes. (Id. at 92-93.) Mr. Huffaker used the restroom and bought a drink while Mr. Dugan bought cigarettes. (Id. at 94.) Plaintiffs then walked back to the car to try to dislodge it from the ditch once again. (Id. at 95.) They then decided to return to the gas station to get help. As they were walking back along Lee Street toward Main Street, Officer Wright approached them, activating his flashing lights. (Id. at 95-96; DSUF ¶ 25.) Officer Wright testified that he had been called out at 11:23 p.m. to respond to a burglar alarm at the MTT. (Wright Dep. at 178-79; Def. Wright's Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. B.)

         For his part, Officer Wright testified that when he first passed through Lee Street, he observed the Lumina stuck in the ditch at the peanut warehouse.[4] (Wright Dep. at 131 & Ex.8.) He then drove to the MTT and observed that the rear doors had been forcibly pried open so that entry into the building could be made. (Id. at 128, 132.) Officer Wright had routinely patrolled this area and had observed that the MTT rear doors had never had enough play previously for a person to fit through. (Id. at 35-37.) Officer Wright went into the building through the rear doors. He then returned to his patrol car and was driving around when he encountered Plaintiffs.[5] (Id.. at 131.)

         According to Officer Wright, Plaintiffs appeared out of breath, rattled, and upset. (Id. at 93.) During their initial encounter, Plaintiffs fully cooperated with Officer Wright, providing their ID cards and explaining that they got stuck in the ditch when they tried to turn around. (Id. at 93 & Ex. 8; Huffaker Dep. at 103-04.) Mr. Dugan presented a California driver's license, and Mr. Huffaker presented a Georgia driver's license indicating an East Dublin address. (Huffaker Dep., Ex. 8.) Also during this initial encounter, Mr. Huffaker revealed that he was legally carrying a firearm, a 40-caliber Beretta, and Mr. Dugan explained that he had a Taser. (Huffaker Dep. at 97-98.) Officer Wright secured the weapons as well as the pocket knife that each Plaintiff had in his pocket. (Id. at 103, 127.) Both Plaintiffs wore boots. (DSUF ¶ 39.)

         The Court will now finish the narrative using the video supplemented by relevant evidence.

         Video, at mark 1:56-2:13[6]

         Officer Wright told Plaintiffs that he is detaining them until he can figure out what is going on. He placed Plaintiffs in the back of his patrol car. (DSUF ¶¶ 48-49.)

         Video, at mark 2:40-3:15

         Officer Wright drove his vehicle down Lee Street to the site of the Lumina in the ditch. During this very short drive, Officer Wright asked Plaintiffs where they had been when he had come by two or three minutes earlier. Mr. Huffaker told Officer Wright that they had gone to the gas station because "the alarm was going off and we didn' t want to be back here because we didn't want to look suspicious." (See also DSUF ¶ 51.) Officer Wright responded that it already looked suspicious being back there, to which Mr. Huffaker volunteered that the alarm had been going off for 30 minutes before they even got there.

         Video, at mark 3:15-3:37

         Officer Wright pointed out that Plaintiffs were not "from here" and asked what they were doing "over this way." Mr. Huffaker explained to Officer Wright: "GPS is going this way, and I told him we were going the wrong way, and he tried to turn around and he backed up in that, and he got stuck and he tried to go back through there and it just plain got stuck. We tried pushing it out both ways, forward and backwards, and it just won't go out."

         Video, at mark 3:40

         Plaintiffs gave Officer Wright consent to search the Lumina. (DSUF ¶ 52.) Mr. Huffaker informed Officer Wright that there was a lot of military gear. According to Plaintiffs, the Lumina contained all of Mr. Dugan's worldly possessions because he had just arrived in the Dublin area from Alabama two days prior with the intent to live there with Mr. Huffaker.[7] (Huffaker Dep. at 109.) Therein, Officer Wright found a black CRKT knife, a Smith & Wesson knife, Smith & Wesson special ops knife and sheath, machete and sheath, flexi cuffs, cuff cutters, bolt cutters, and a lock picking set. (DSUF ¶ 53.)

         Video, at mark 6:10-6:24

         After Officer Wright had partly searched the vehicle, [8] he called for assistance to 10-12[9] ("Stand By") until he could "get this thing pieced together."

         Video, at mark 8:31-9:56

         Dispatch informed Officer Wright that the Lumina is registered to Robert Reed from Alabama. Mr. Huffaker again volunteered that his buddy had just purchased it and was in the process of moving to Georgia.

         Video, at mark 10:55-22:45

         Audio consistent with a further search of the Lumina and its contents can be heard, including opening zippers.

         Video, at mark 24:30-26:20

         Defendant Ian Lawson, a Telfair County Sheriff's Deputy, arrived on the scene with his "K-9 companion, " Fred, reputed to be a tracking bloodhound. (DSUF ¶ 61.) Deputy Lawson approached the scene from the opposite direction on Lee Street; the front of his vehicle faced the front of Officer Wright's vehicle. According to Deputy Lawson, Fred is a ground disturbance tracker, not an article tracker. (Lawson Dep. at 55.) He had only been tracking a short time with Deputy Lawson. (See generally id. at 24-26.) In fact, this was Fred's first night track with Deputy Lawson. (Id. at 26.)

         In the video, Officer Wright told Deputy Lawson that the alarm had been going off and he had "two ex-military nuts" in his car, one from California and the other from Dublin, Georgia and a car from Alabama, one had a pistol and the other a Taser, and they had bolt cutters in a bag. Deputy Lawson could be heard to say "something don't add up at all." Video, at mark 26:20-26:40

         Deputy Lawson asked if Officer Wright wants him to "check out the building." Officer Wright responded: "I done checked it - I went through it." He further stated that he had gone around and was coming back to the Lumina to get the car towed when he saw Plaintiffs.

         Video, at mark 26:47-27:22

         Deputy Lawson mentioned his new dog and stated: "He needs to track somebody." Deputy Lawson quipped that they could let Plaintiffs loose to see if he could hunt them. Officer Wright then asked Deputy Lawson if Fred could "track okay" and suggested that Deputy Lawson "see if he runs a track anywhere from [the MTT] to back towards this car." Deputy Lawson agrees. Officer Wright clearly tells Deputy Lawson: "Because I ain't been out on foot other than I walked right straight into the building. I parked at the back door and walked in the building."

         Deputy Lawson drove his patrol car backward down Lee Street and then up the dirt road off of Lee Street to the right side of the MTT. He and Fred began their track. (Lawson Dep. at 39, 53.) Fred reportedly picked up a track about 5 to 10 feet left of the rear door of the MTT and tracked down a dirt path leading to Lee Street.[10] (Id. at 40-42.) Deputy Lawson observed boot prints on this path. (Id. at 56 ("I located a pretty fresh boot print along that path. How fresh it was, I don't exactly know. I know that it was not in any way degraded by environmental conditions.") Once Fred reached the paved Lee Street, his track ended, but the Lumina was visible, a hundred yards away. (Id. at 51.) Video, at mark 27:50-29:00

         Directly after Deputy Lawson left the scene, Officer Wright made a telephone call inquiring about the owner of the MTT. During this conversation, Officer Wright remarked as follows: "There's entry been made into the [MTT] . And I mean, one of these cats got a gun on him and one of ' ems got a Taser. And, they ain't from nowhere around here. And the car's conveniently stuck back here within walking distance of the place. So it ain't looking too good for them. Looking like the alarm scared them off . . . ."

         Video, ...

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