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Hardigree v. Lofton

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Gainesville Division

July 30, 2019




         This case is before the Court on Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment [Doc. Nos. 55, 57, 59, and 60] and Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 63].

         I. Factual Background

         This is a civil action related to the allegedly unlawful arrest of Plaintiff Anthony Wayne Hardigree on August 4, 2016, at a mobile home in Statham, Georgia.

         A. Drug Investigation of Anthony Rodgers

         Anthony Rodgers, known in the Statham community as “Antman” and/or “Ant, ” was the subject of a criminal drug investigation [Doc. No. 60-2, ¶ 1, admitted]. Based upon information from a confidential informant, law enforcement officers were conducting surveillance of a known drug house on Wall Road in Statham, Georgia, on August 4, 2016 [Doc. No. 57-2, ¶ 1, admitted]. Defendant Chad Norris, a Barrow County Sheriff's Deputy, and Defendant Marc Lofton, a City of Statham police officer, were involved in the surveillance operation [Doc. No. 60-2, ¶ 1, admitted]. Law enforcement observed Antman leaving the Wall Road residence in a red Ford Explorer [Doc. No. 57-2, ¶ 2, admitted]. After losing Antman, Defendant Norris made a call out on the radio to stop the Explorer [Id., ¶ 3, admitted; Doc. No. 60-2, ¶ 2, admitted].

         Nicole Geiman, another Barrow County Sheriff's Deputy, followed up on the radio traffic connected to Antman and joined the search for his Explorer [Doc. No. 60-2, ¶ 3, admitted]. After a few minutes, Deputy Geiman spotted the Explorer near a mobile home located on McCarty Road in a mobile home park [Doc. No. 57-2, ¶¶ 5-6, admitted]. This mobile home was Plaintiff's residence [Id., ¶ 5, admitted]. As she pulled up, Deputy Geiman observed Antman leaving Plaintiff's residence carrying a bag or backpack over his shoulder and getting back into his Explorer [Doc. No. 60-2, ¶ 5, admitted]. Deputy Geiman approached the vehicle, and Defendant Lofton arrived shortly thereafter [Doc. No. 63-2, ¶¶ 13-14, admitted]. Defendant Smith, a Georgia State Patrol Trooper, was also asked to assist with the traffic stop [Doc. No. 55-1, ¶ 1, admitted].

         Trooper Smith saw Deputy Geiman speaking with Antman through the driver's side door of the Ford Explorer [Id., ¶ 7, admitted]. Trooper Smith asked Antman for his driver's license and immediately noticed an odor of marijuana [Id., ¶ 8, admitted]. Deputy Geiman and Officer Lofton then arrested Antman and a female occupant of the Explorer [Doc. No. 63-2, ¶ 15, admitted]. Deputy Geiman, Trooper Smith, and Officer Lofton then searched the Explorer [Id., ¶ 16, admitted]. Inside the vehicle, they found approximately 29 grams of methamphetamine, some marijuana, and other drug paraphernalia [Doc. No. 55-1, ¶ 13, admitted]; Doc. No. 57-2, ¶ 12, admitted]. During the search and while waiting for Deputy Norris to arrive at the scene, Deputy Geiman informed Officer Lofton and Trooper Smith that she had seen Antman walking from Plaintiff's residence [Doc. No. 57-2, ¶ 13, admitted]. Deputy Norris arrived about twenty-five minutes after Deputy Geiman initiated the stop of the Explorer [Id., ¶ 15, admitted].

         B. Interaction with Plaintiff

         Trooper Smith then approached the mobile home to conduct a knock-and-talk with the residents [Doc. No. 55-1, ¶ 15, admitted]. One of the female residents, Torry Craig, answered the door [Id., ¶ 16, admitted]. Ms. Craig told Trooper Smith that she did not know Antman but that her husband, Plaintiff Hardigree, had spoken with him [Id., ¶ 17, admitted]. Ms. Craig then left the doorway of the mobile home to get Plaintiff Hardigree [Id., ¶ 18, admitted]. Officer Lofton also approached the door to speak with Plaintiff [Doc. No. 57-2, ¶ 21, admitted]. Plaintiff stated that he did not know Antman well and that he was at the house to ask about a job at Plaintiff's brother's welding shop [Id., ¶ 19, admitted; Doc. No. 63-2, ¶ 25, admitted]. Officer Lofton interjected that Plaintiff was “in the game, too” [Doc. No. 57-2, ¶ 23, admitted]. Deputy Norris then approached the mobile home [Id., ¶ 25, admitted]. Trooper Smith then stepped away, returning to his patrol car for a short period of time and then standing near the door of the mobile home [Id.].

         Deputy Norris asked for permission to come inside the residence to search it, but Plaintiff refused to give his consent [Id., ¶ 26, admitted]. He stated that the residence belonged to his sister [Id., ¶ 27, admitted]. Plaintiff argued with Officer Lofton and Deputy Norris about closing his door and terminating the police encounter; they told Plaintiff that he needed to exit the residence [Id., ¶ 29, admitted]. Instead, Plaintiff turned around to go farther inside the residence; he states that he did so to call his sister [Doc. No. 60-2, ¶¶ 19-20, admitted]. Deputy Norris then shouted “10-10, ” the code for a fight in progress. [Doc. No. 55-1, ¶ 26, admitted].

         Officer Lofton entered the residence, followed by Deputy Norris, and tried to stop Plaintiff from continuing farther into the residence [Doc. No. 57-2, ¶ 38, admitted]. Officer Lofton then unholstered his taser and deployed it while Plaintiff was standing up and facing him [Id., ¶ 40, admitted]. Trooper Smith and Deputy Geiman rushed into the mobile home to assist [Id., ¶ 42, admitted]. Plaintiff was on the ground, and Officer Lofton ordered him to show his hands [Id., ¶ 43, admitted]. Plaintiff did not do so, and Officer Lofton used his taser in a “drive stun” [Id., ¶ 47, admitted]. Upon entering, Trooper Smith saw Plaintiff face-down on the ground while Officer Lofton deployed the taser prongs and Deputy Geiman attempted to place handcuffs on Plaintiff [Doc. No. 55-1, ¶ 28, admitted]. Plaintiff was then placed under arrest and charged with simple assault and battery (under O.C.G.A. § 16-5-23), disorderly conduct (under O.C.G.A. § 16-11-39), and obstructing law enforcement officers (under O.C.G.A. § 16-10-24) [Doc. No. 55-1, ¶ 36, admitted].

         Trooper Smith then conducted a protective sweep of the mobile home [Doc. No. 55-1, ¶ 32, admitted]. Trooper Smith's only interaction with Plaintiff during or after the use of force was after he had been placed under arrest and taken outside of the mobile home [Id., ¶ 37, admitted]. Trooper Smith did not use any hands-on force against Plaintiff [Id., ¶ 39, admitted].

         C. Procedural History

         This case was filed on November 13, 2017 [Doc. No. 1]. Plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint on March 16, 2018 [Doc. No. 27]. In Counts One, Two, and Four, Plaintiff asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the individual Defendants for unlawful entry, false arrest, and excessive force [Id.]. In Count Three, Plaintiff asserts a § 1983 claim against Defendant Lofton for malicious prosecution [Id.]. In Count Five, Plaintiff asserts state law claims against Defendants Lofton and City of Statham for false imprisonment, assault, battery, and malicious prosecution [Id.]. All parties have now moved for summary judgment [Doc. Nos. 55, 57, 59, 60 and 63].

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 requires that summary judgment be granted “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(a). “The moving party bears ‘the initial responsibility of informing the . . . court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.'” Hickson Corp. v. N. Crossarm Co., 1256');">357 F.3d 1256, 1259 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 17');">477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (internal quotations omitted)). Where the moving party makes such a showing, the burden shifts to the non-movant, who must go beyond the pleadings and present affirmative evidence to show that a genuine issue of material fact does exist. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 257 (1986). The applicable substantive law identifies which facts are material. Id. at 248. A fact is not material if a dispute over that fact will not affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id. An issue is genuine when the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. at 249-50.

         In resolving a motion for summary judgment, the court must view all evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Patton v. Triad Guar. Ins. Corp., 1294');">277 F.3d 1294, 1296 (11th Cir. 2002). But, the court is bound only to draw those inferences that are reasonable. “Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.” Allen v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 121 F.3d 642');">121 F.3d 642, 646 (11th Cir. 1997) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)). “If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (internal citations omitted); see also Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586 (once the moving party has met its burden under Rule 56(a), the nonmoving party “must do more than simply show there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts”).

         III. Analysis

         The Court will discuss the qualified immunity doctrine generally and then address each party's arguments in turn.

         A. Qualified Immunity Doctrine

         The doctrine of qualified immunity protects governmental officials who are sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for money damages in their personal, or individual capacities, but only so long as “their conduct violates no clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). The doctrine requires that a defendant claiming immunity must initially “prove that ‘he was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority when the allegedly wrongful acts occurred.'” Lee v. Ferraro, 1188');">284 F.3d 1188, 1194 (11th Cir. 2002) (quoting Courson v. McMillian, 1479');">939 F.2d 1479, 1487 (11th Cir. 1991)). If that threshold prerequisite is satisfied, courts generally apply a two-part test. The initial inquiry requires the court to determine whether the facts, viewed “in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, ” show that “the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right.” Saucier v. Katz, 194');">533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001). If that initial inquiry is answered affirmatively, then the court will proceed to analyze the second aspect of the two-part test: i.e., “whether the right was clearly established.” Id. Strict adherence to the order of those two inquiries is not required, however. See Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009) (“On reconsidering the procedure required in Saucier, we conclude that, while the sequence set forth there is often appropriate, it should not longer be regarded as mandatory.”) Instead, in appropriate cases, it is within a district court's discretion to assume that a constitutional violation occurred in order to address, in the first instance, the question of whether such a presumed violation was “clearly established” on the date of the incident leading to suit. Id.

         When determining whether the unlawfulness of an official's actions was “clearly established, ” the pertinent question is whether the state of the law on the date of the defendant's alleged misconduct placed defendants on “fair warning that their alleged treatment of [the plaintiff] was unconstitutional.” Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 741 (2002); Williams v. Consolidated City of Jacksonville, 1 F.3d 1261');">341 F.3d 1261, 1270 (11th Cir. 2003). The Supreme Court has rejected the requirement that the facts of previous cases must always be “materially similar” to those facing the plaintiff. Hope, 536 U.S. at 739. Instead, for a constitutional right to be deemed “clearly established, ”

its contours “must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right. This is not to say that an official action is protected by qualified immunity unless the very action in question has previously been held unlawful; but it is to say that in the light of pre-existing law the unlawfulness must be apparent.

Hope, 536 U.S. at 741 (citations omitted). An officer can receive “fair notice” of his or her unlawful conduct in various ways.

First, the words of the pertinent federal statute or federal constitutional provision in some cases will be specific enough to establish clearly the law applicable to particular conduct and circumstances and to overcome qualified immunity, even in the total absence of case law. This kind of case is one kind of “obvious clarity” case. For example, the words of a federal statute or federal constitutional provision may be so clear and the conduct so bad that case law is not needed to establish that the conduct cannot be lawful.
Second, if the conduct is not so egregious as to violate, for example, the Fourth Amendment on its face, we then turn to case law. When looking at case law, some broad statements of principle in case law are not tied to particularized facts and can clearly establish law applicable in the future to different sets of detailed facts. For example, if some authoritative judicial decision decides a case by determining that “X Conduct” is unconstitutional without tying that determination to a particularized set of facts, the decision on “X Conduct” can be read as having clearly established a constitutional principle: put differently, the precise facts surrounding “X Conduct” are immaterial to the violation. These judicial decisions can control “with obvious clarity” a wide variety of later factual circumstances. These precedents are hard to distinguish from later cases because so few facts are material to the broad legal principle established in these precedents; thus, this is why factual differences are often immaterial to the later decisions. But for judge-made law, there is a presumption against wide principles of law. And if a broad principle in case law is to establish clearly the law applicable to a specific set of facts facing a governmental official, it must do so “with obvious clarity” to the point that every objectively reasonable government official facing the circumstances would know that the official's conduct did violate federal law when the official acted.
Third, if we have no case law with a broad holding of “X” that is not tied to particularized facts, we then look at precedent that is tied to the facts. That is, we look for cases in which the Supreme Court or we, or the pertinent state supreme court has said that “Y Conduct” is unconstitutional in “Z Circumstances.” We believe that most judicial precedents are tied to particularized facts and fall in this category. . . . When fact-specific precedents are said to have established the law, a case that is fairly distinguishable from the circumstances facing a government official cannot clearly establish the law for the circumstances facing that government official; so, qualified immunity applies. On the other hand, if the circumstances facing a government official are not fairly distinguishable, that is, are materially similar, the precedent can clearly establish the applicable law.

Vinyard v. Wilson, 11 F.3d 1340');">311 F.3d 1340, 1350-52 (11th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted, emphasis in original). See also Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 1');">563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011) (“We do not require a case directly on point, but existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.”).

         B. Defendant Statham Police Officer Marc Lofton

         Plaintiff asserts federal claims against Defendant Statham Police Officer Marc Lofton for illegal entry (Count One), false arrest (Count Two), malicious prosecution (Count Three), and excessive force (Count Four), and state law claims for false imprisonment, assault and battery, and malicious prosecution (Count Five). Officer Lofton asserts that he is entitled to summary judgment for four reasons: (1) Plaintiff cannot establish a malicious prosecution claim; (2) he did not violate Plaintiff's constitutional rights; (3) assuming he violated Plaintiff's constitutional rights, he is entitled to qualified immunity; (4) Plaintiff's state law claims fail because there was probable cause; and (5) he is entitled to official immunity for claims based on state law. Plaintiff argues that he is entitled to summary judgment on Count One because Officer Lofton violated his clearly established Fourth Amendment rights by illegally entering his home. The Court will address the series of events that took place during the encounter between Plaintiff and law enforcement and address qualified immunity in turn.

         1. Knock and Talk to Terry Stop

         Plaintiff's encounter with law enforcement began with what appears to be a run-of-the-mill “knock and talk” when Trooper Smith knocked on Plaintiff's door. Law enforcement “[o]fficers are allowed to knock on a residence's door or otherwise approach the residence seeking to speak to the inhabitants just as any private citizen may.” United States v. Taylor, 1201');">458 F.3d 1201, 1204 (11th Cir. 2006).

[W]hen a citizen is not detained by a Terry stop or otherwise lawfully detained and chooses to speak with an officer, that citizen has the right to cease answering questions and walk away from the officer; this encounter is entirely voluntary. When this type of interaction occurs as the result of a citizen's decision to speak with officers after they knock on the door of his home, provided that no warrant or probable cause and exigent circumstances exist, the citizen has the right to terminate his voluntary participation in the conversation by retiring into his home and closing the door.

Moore, 806 F.3d at 1044, n.11.

         At some point in time, Officer Lofton and Deputy Norris approached the porch, and Trooper Smith moved away towards his patrol car. The audio recording of the encounter[1" name="FN1" id="FN1">1] from Officer Lofton's dash camera captured the following dialogue:

LOFTON: How do you know this guy [Antman]?
PLAINTIFF: I don't really know him.
LOFTON: He didn't bring you anything?
PLAINTIFF: Just now?
LOFTON: Yes, just now.
LOFTON: He came inside?
PLAINTIFF: Yes, I gave him a water and sent him on his way.
LOFTON: So, he didn't bring you anything?
LOFTON: What'd he do? What do you think he did?
PLAINTIFF: I don't know.
LOFTON: So you don't know what he was doing?
PLAINTIFF: No, I don't know what he was doing.
LOFTON: You do, too. You're in the game, too, man. I've arrested you. I've locked you up before. [referencing Plaintiff's previous DUI (less safe) arrest]
PLAINTIFF: I was taking medication because I was sick.
LOFTON: You were not sick.
PLAINTIFF: I was too sick. I got the paperwork that shows I was sick.
I nearly died. I would've died if I would've stayed at that jail over there. You can believe that or not . . . [unintelligible]. Y'all do what y'all gotta do.
NORRIS: Hey, buddy. What's your name?
NORRIS: Anthony who?
PLAINTIFF: Hardigree.
NORRIS: Can we come inside?
PLAINTIFF: It's not my house.
NORRIS: It's not your house?
NORRIS: Okay. Where do you live?
PLAINTIFF: I live here. I stay here. But it's not my house.
NORRIS: Whose house is it then?
PLAINTIFF: My sister's.
NORRIS: Can you call her then?
PLAINTIFF: Uh, yeah, I'll call her.
NORRIS: Whoa, stay right there.
PLAINTIFF: It's my door. I can't close my door? You can't keep me from shutting my door.
NORRIS: Whoa, stay right there.
PLAINTIFF: It's my door. I can't close my door? You can't keep me from shutting my door.
OFFICER: Uh, yeah, we can.
PLAINTIFF: What have I done?
NORRIS: Let me explain it to you. . . . Calm down. The thing is, we've got a known drug dealer coming to your house, coming in with a backpack. Coming out with a backpack. He got drugs all ...

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