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Bennett v. Harper

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

May 10, 2019




         Plaintiff brought this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action while confined in Washington State Prison in Davisboro, Georgia, to contest certain events allegedly occurring in Coffee County, Georgia. Doc. 1. Plaintiff seeks damages for Defendants' August 22, 2015 search of his room and his subsequent arrest and pre-trial detention. For the reasons which follow, I RECOMMEND the Court DISMISS with prejudice Plaintiff's claims for false arrest and false imprisonment. However, Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment unreasonable search claim against Defendants shall proceed. Consequently, a copy of Plaintiff's Complaint, doc. 1, and a copy of this Order shall be served upon Defendant Harper and Defendant Merritt by the United States Marshal without prepayment of cost.


         On August 22, 2015, Defendant Harper and Defendant Merritt went to Plaintiff's residence to assist with an eviction against the lessee, Anna Railey.[1] Doc. 1 at 5-6, 9-10. Railey had sublet two rooms, one to Plaintiff and one to another resident. Id. When Defendants arrived, Plaintiff and the other resident learned of the pending eviction action against them for the first time. Id.

         At some point, Defendant Merritt entered Plaintiff's bedroom without Plaintiff's consent and began to question Plaintiff about possible contraband in his bedroom. Id. at 7-8, 11. Soon after, Defendant Harper entered Plaintiff's room (also without Plaintiff's consent) and noticed illegal items in plain view, including a small amount of marijuana. Id. Defendants then searched the room and discovered a box of methamphetamine under the bed. Id.

         Plaintiff was arrested and charged with offenses arising from the search. Id. On January 13, 2017, the Superior Court of Coffee County found the search unconstitutional and granted Plaintiff's motion to suppress. Id. at 9-16. Plaintiff alleges that, as a result of this search, he was arrested and remained incarcerated until he could afford a bond. Id. at 7. He requests, as relief, $200, 000 in compensatory damages and expungement of all records related to the case. Id. at 8.


         Plaintiff is bringing this action in forma pauperis. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)(1), the Court may authorize the filing of a civil lawsuit without the prepayment of fees if the plaintiff submits an affidavit that includes a statement of all of his assets, shows an inability to pay the filing fee, and also includes a statement of the nature of the action which shows that he is entitled to redress. Even if the plaintiff proves indigence, the Court must dismiss the action if it is frivolous, malicious, or if it fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(i)-(ii). Additionally, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court must review a complaint in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity. Upon such screening, the Court must dismiss a complaint, or any portion thereof, that is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or which seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b).

         The Court looks to the instructions for pleadings contained in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure when reviewing a complaint on an application to proceed in forma pauperis. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 8 (“A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain [among other things] . . . a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.”); Fed.R.Civ.P. 10 (requiring that claims be set forth in numbered paragraphs, each limited to a single set of circumstances). Further, a claim is frivolous under § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) “if it is ‘without arguable merit either in law or fact.'” Napier v. Preslicka, 314 F.3d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 2002) (quoting Bilal v. Driver, 251 F.3d 1346, 1349 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         Whether a complaint fails to state a claim under § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) is governed by the same standard applicable to motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Thompson v. Rundle, 393 Fed.Appx. 675, 678 (11th Cir. 2010). Under that standard, this Court must determine whether the complaint contains “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A plaintiff must assert “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not” suffice. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Section 1915 also “accords judges not only the authority to dismiss a claim based on an indisputably meritless legal theory, but also the unusual power to pierce the veil of the complaint's factual allegations and dismiss those claims whose factual contentions are clearly baseless.” Bilal, 251 F.3d at 1349 (quoting Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327 (1989)).

         In its analysis, the Court will abide by the long-standing principle that the pleadings of unrepresented parties are held to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys and, therefore, must be liberally construed. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972); Boxer X v. Harris, 437 F.3d 1107, 1110 (11th Cir. 2006) (“Pro se pleadings are held to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by attorneys . . . .”) (emphasis omitted) (quoting Hughes v. Lott, 350 F.3d 1157, 1160 (11th Cir. 2003)). However, Plaintiff's unrepresented status will not excuse mistakes regarding procedural rules. McNeil v. United States, 508 U.S. 106, 113 (1993) (“We have never suggested that procedural rules in ordinary civil litigation should be interpreted so as to excuse mistakes by those who proceed without counsel.”).


         I. Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment Claims

         Construing the pleadings liberally, the Court finds that Plaintiff asserts three § 1983 claims: (1) unreasonable search; (2) false arrest; and (3) false imprisonment. Doc. 1 at 5-8. The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures[.]” U.S. Const. amend. IV. A plaintiff can allege a colorable § 1983 claim for unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment violation by claiming that officers searched an ...

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