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Guerra v. Rockdale County

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

October 28, 2019

Gerardo Espinosa Guerra, Plaintiff,
Rockdale County, Georgia, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION & ORDER

          Michael L. Brown United States District Judge

         Plaintiff claims he was wrongfully arrested and detained for sixteen days based on a mistaken identification by members of the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office and the City of Franklin Police Department. He filed suit, alleging violations of his constitutional rights and Georgia state law. Defendant City of Franklin, Tennessee, and Defendant Officers Tommy D. Justus, Becky Porter, and Chad D. Black (“Tennessee Defendants”) moved to dismiss Plaintiff's amended complaint. (Dkt. 37.) Defendant Rockdale County, Georgia, Defendant Rockdale County Sheriff Eric J. Levett, and Defendant Officers Brandon W. Douglas and Jonathan W. Baker (“Rockdale Defendants”) moved for partial judgment on the pleadings. (Dkt. 36.) The Court grants in part and denies in part both motions and allows the surviving claims to proceed.

         I. Background

         In January 2015, police officers with the City of Franklin Police Department (including Defendant Black as the lead investigator) began investigating criminal activity at a local hotel. (Dkt. 33 ¶ 40.) They identified and photographed five suspects, including an individual known as Gerardo Emmanuel Espinosa Zamudio. (Id. ¶¶ 32-36.) Although police made no arrests at the time, they later obtained an indictment against Zamudio for aggravated assault and false imprisonment. (Id. ¶ 39.) Franklin police placed a warrant for his arrest in a nationwide database. (Id. ¶ 40.)

         Plaintiff Guerra was not involved in the criminal activity at the Franklin hotel. On November 12, 2015, he was at his home in Conyers, Georgia, minding his own business when two officers with the Rockdale Sheriff's Office knocked on his door. (Id. ¶ 43.) They were looking for Plaintiff's stepfather to ask him questions about a car he had previously owned, again totally unrelated to anything that happened in Franklin. (Id.) While trying to help the officers, Plaintiff provided his Georgia driver's license. (Id. ¶ 46.) The officers somehow thought Plaintiff might be the subject of the Tennessee warrant and placed him in the back of their squad car while investigating. (Id. ¶ 47.) They soon realized he was not the suspect in the warrant and let him go, encouraging him to “clear up the matter” so he would not be mistakenly arrested in the future. (Id. ¶ 49.) Plaintiff - apparently accepting that advice - went to the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office a couple of days later and provided his fingerprints, social security number, driver's license, and other identifying information. (Id. ¶¶ 49-50, 52.)

         On November 16, 2015, someone in the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office sent a copy of Plaintiff's driver's license photograph to Defendant Porter, with the Franklin Police Department. (Id. ¶ 54.) Defendant Porter attempted to compare Plaintiff's picture with pictures of suspects at the Franklin hotel that police had taken months earlier. (Id. ¶ 55.) She was unable to locate the photographs of the individuals involved in the incident, however, although Plaintiff alleges such photographs were in the file at the time. (Id.) As a result, Defendant Porter was unable to confirm if Plaintiff was the individual sought in the Tennessee warrant. (Id.) A couple of days later, Defendant Porter showed Plaintiff's photograph to Defendant Black, who had been part of the original investigation at the hotel. (Id. ¶ 60.) Defendant Black - looking only at the photograph of Plaintiff and comparing it to his memory of the suspect from months before - confirmed that Plaintiff was the individual sought by the Tennessee warrant and asked the Rockdale officers to arrest him. (Id. ¶ 63.)

         Defendant Baker called Plaintiff and asked him to come back to the sheriff's office. (Id. ¶ 71.) Plaintiff did. (Id.) Rockdale Officers Baker and Douglas arrested Plaintiff, telling him the Franklin officers had identified him as the suspect involved in the assault at the hotel. (Id. ¶ 72.) Defendant Officer Douglas obtained an arrest warrant the next day, charging Plaintiff with being a fugitive from justice. (Id. ¶¶ 78-79.) Plaintiff remained in jail for sixteen days before police finally determined that he was not the man sought in the Tennessee warrant and dismissed the charges. (Id. ¶ 86.)

         Plaintiff asserts claims against defendants in Georgia and Tennessee. He sued Rockdale County, Georgia, Rockdale County Sheriff Eric J. Levett, and Rockdale Sheriff Officers Johnathan W. Baker and Brandon W. Douglas. He also sued the City of Franklin, Tennessee, and Franklin Police Department Officers Tommy D. Justus, Chad D. Black, and Becky Porter.[1] He brings federal claims of false arrest (Count One) and malicious prosecution/false imprisonment (Count Two) under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Georgia state-law claims of false arrest (Count Three), malicious prosecution (Count Four), false imprisonment (Count Five), and negligent hiring, retention, and training (Count Six). The Rockdale Defendants filed a motion for partial judgment on the pleadings and the Tennessee Defendants filed a motion to dismiss. (Dkts. 36; 37.)

         II. Legal Standard

         A court may dismiss a pleading for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim for 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, 555 (2007)). At the motion to dismiss stage, “all well-pleaded facts are accepted as true, and the reasonable inferences therefrom are construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Bryant v. Avado Brands, Inc., 187 F.3d 1271, 1273 n.1 (11th Cir. 1999). When considering a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), a court is guided “by the same standard as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).” Carbone v. Cable News Network, Inc., 910 F.3d 1345, 1350 (11th Cir. 2018).

         While parties usually raise the defense of qualified immunity at summary judgment, a party may nevertheless assert the defense at the outset of the litigation on a motion to dismiss. See Corbitt v. Vickers, 929 F.3d 1304, 1311 (11th Cir. 2019). A district court grants such a motion if “the complaint fails to allege the violation of a clearly established constitutional right.” Id. (quoting St. George v. Pinellas Cty., 285 F.3d 1334, 1337 (11th Cir. 2002)). Indeed, the early assertion and (if appropriate) resolution of qualified immunity effectuates the principal that qualified immunity is “an entitlement not to stand trial or face the other burdens of litigation.” Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985); see also Andrews v. Scott, 729 Fed.Appx. 804, 808 (11th Cir. 2018) (“Once the defendants advance the affirmative defense of qualified immunity, the complaint must be dismissed, unless the plaintiff's allegations state a claim of violation of clearly established law.” (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         III. Discussion

         The Court notes from the outset that, notwithstanding Plaintiff's amendment to his complaint, none of the counts clearly delineates against which of the Defendants the claims are asserted. The Court has tried to discern Plaintiff's intent through his mention of various Defendants in each of the counts. The Court believes it has addressed all outstanding issues.

         A. The Rockdale Defendants' Motion for Partial Judgment on the Pleadings (Dkt. 36)

         1. The Court Grants the Rockdale Defendants' Motion as to Count One.

         The Rockdale Defendants (that is, Rockdale County Sheriff Levett and Rockdale County Sheriff Officers Baker and Douglas) move for judgment on the pleadings on Count One against them in their individual capacities. (Dkt. 36-1 at 3.) They argue that, because they arrested Plaintiff “under an arrest warrant from Tennessee with verification from the agency that obtained the warrant, ” Plaintiff cannot bring a claim for false arrest. (Id. at 4.) In support of this argument, they cite the Eleventh Circuit's opinion in Carter v. Gore, holding that “[t]he issuance of a warrant - even an invalid one . . . - constitutes legal process, and thus, where an individual has been arrested pursuant to a warrant, his claim is for malicious prosecution rather than false arrest.” 557 Fed.Appx. 904, 906 (11th Cir. 2014). Plaintiff claims this rule does not apply because he was not the individual named in the warrant.

         Plaintiff is correct but for a different reason. Contrary to the Rockdale Defendants' assertion, Plaintiff does not allege in the amended complaint that the Rockdale Defendants arrested him pursuant to the Tennessee warrant. He claims they arrested him for the “offense of fugitive from justice, O.C.G.A. §17-13-33.” (Dkt. 33 ¶ 79.) He claims the officers arrested him on November 18, 2015, and the next day, secured a warrant for violating Georgia law. (Id. ¶¶ 71, 78.) This would mean that Plaintiff alleges the original arrest was made without probable cause. Indeed, as part of his false arrest claim, Plaintiff alleges that the Rockdale Defendants “had no arguable probable cause, much less probable cause” to swear out the warrant for his arrest for being a fugitive from justice. (Id. ¶ 103.) Carter v. Gore thus does not bar Plaintiff's § 1983 false arrest claim.

         Alternatively, the Rockdale Defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity because an officer who acts upon information from another officer about the identity of a wanted suspect has probable cause and does not commit false arrest as a matter of law. (Dkt. 36-1 at 4-5.) Defendants cite no case that establishes this sweeping legal assertion. The Court nevertheless concludes they are entitled to qualified immunity.

         “Qualified immunity offers complete protection for government officials sued in their individual capacities if their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Vinyard v. Wilson, 311 F.3d 1340, 1346 (11th Cir. 2002) (internal quotation marks omitted). So “[q]ualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 743 (2011). Qualified immunity allows officials to “carry out their discretionary duties without the fear of personal liability or harassing litigation.” Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1194 (11th Cir. 2002). When properly applied, it “protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” al-Kidd, 563 U.S. at 743 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Qualified immunity may attach only when the officer is “acting within the scope of his discretionary authority when the allegedly wrongful acts occurred.” Grider v. City of Auburn, 618 F.3d 1240, 1254 n.19 (11th Cir. 2010). A public official acts within the scope of his discretionary authority where the acts complained of were “undertaken pursuant to the performance of his duties and within the scope of his authority.” Rich v. Dollar, 841 F.2d 1558, 1564 (11th Cir. 1988). “Once the defendant establishes that he was acting within his discretionary authority, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that qualified immunity is not appropriate.” Lee, 284 F.3d at 1194. There seems to be no question that the Rockdale Defendants acted within the scope of their discretionary authority when arresting Plaintiff. See, e.g., Wate v. Kubler, 839 F.3d 1012, 1018 (11th Cir. 2016) (holding that officers acted within discretionary authority when arresting suspect). Plaintiff, thus, has the burden of showing that qualified immunity is unavailable to them.

         The qualified immunity analysis presents two questions: first, whether the allegations, taken as true, establish the violation of a constitutional right; and second, if so, whether the constitutional right was clearly established when the violation occurred. Hadley v. Gutierrez, 526 F.3d 1324, 1329 (11th Cir. 2008). These distinct questions “do not have to be analyzed sequentially; if the law was not clearly established, [the court] need not decide if the [d]efendants actually violated the [plaintiff's] rights, although [the court is] permitted to do so.” Fils v. City of Aventura, 647 F.3d 1272, 1287 (11th Cir. 2011). The burden thus lies with Plaintiff to show the Rockdale Defendants' actions violated a constitutional right and that the right was clearly established at the time of his arrest. See Hadley, 526 F.3d at 1329.

         a. Constitutional Violation

         Plaintiff sued the Rockdale Officers alleging they violated his Fourth Amendment rights by arresting him without probable cause. (Dkt. 33 ¶¶ 101-109.) “A warrantless arrest without probable cause violates the Constitution and provides a basis for a section 1983 claim.” Kingsland v. City of Miami, 382 F.3d 1220, 1226 (11th Cir. 2004). Probable cause to arrest exists when an arrest is objectively reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances. Id. “This standard is met when the facts and circumstances within the officer's knowledge, of which he or she has reasonably trustworthy information, would cause a prudent person to believe, under the circumstances shown, that the suspect has committed, is committing, or is about to commit an offense.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Officers who make an arrest without probable cause are nonetheless entitled to qualified immunity if they had at least “arguable probable cause for the arrest.” Id. at 1232. Arguable probable cause exists if “reasonable officers in the same circumstances and possessing the same knowledge as the defendant could have believed that probable cause existed to arrest.” Gates v. Khokhar, 884 F.3d 1290, 1298 (11th Cir. 2018) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The Supreme Court has held that no constitutional violation arises from the mistaken arrest of one person (for whom no probable cause to arrest existed) based upon the misidentification of that person as a second person (for whom probable cause to arrest existed). Hill v. California, 401 U.S. 797, 802-03 (1971). The Eleventh Circuit has applied the same rule when police had a valid warrant for one person but mistakenly arrest someone else due to a misidentification. Rodriguez v. Farrell, 280 F.3d 1341, 1345-46 (11th Cir. 2002). The same “reasonable mistake” must apply in this case: a hybrid of Hill and Rodriguez, involving a warrant for one person and a mistaken identification giving rise to probable cause to arrest another person as a fugitive.

         Plaintiff's amended complaint alleges that a reasonable officer in the Rockdale Defendants' position “would have known that no arguable probable cause existed to support the issuance of an arrest warrant for Plaintiff.” (Dkt. 33 ¶ 106.) While alleging the operative legal conclusion, Plaintiff also alleges facts that belie such a finding. He claims the Rockdale Defendants arrested him for being a fugitive from justice after the Tennessee Defendants confirmed he was the subject of their warrant. He claims the Rockdale Defendants sent the Tennessee Defendants a copy of his driver's license photo, that Defendant Porter initially failed to identify Plaintiff from that photo, but that Defendant Black later did so. (Id. ¶¶ 55-64.) Indeed, Plaintiff claims that the Tennessee Defendants assured the Rockdale Defendants that the “guy that had the [hotel] case” had reviewed Plaintiff's photo and said “that's him.” (Id. ¶ 64.) Finally, Plaintiff alleges that the Tennessee Defendants asked the Rockdale Defendants to arrest Plaintiff, assuring they would extradite Plaintiff to Tennessee.

         Accepting the allegations in the complaint as true, the Rockdale Defendants had at least arguable probable cause to believe Plaintiff was a fugitive from Tennessee. They knew that the officer who investigated the hotel case (Defendant Black) had looked at Plaintiff's photo and confirmed Plaintiff was their fugitive. Plaintiff does not allege that the Rockdale Defendants had any reason to doubt the veracity or strength of Defendant Black's eye-witness identification. He sets forth actions that he took to cooperate with the police and the Tennessee officers' initial failure to identify him as the subject of their arrest warrant - all of which, he alleges, gave the Rockdale Defendants additional reason to pause before arresting him on the word of the Franklin officer. (Id. ¶¶ 49, 50, 52, 55, 56.) He also explains the actions he believes a reasonable officer would have taken before arresting him on the warrant given the particular facts in this case. (Id. ¶ 82.) But, even accepting all of this as true, the Rockdale Defendants' had eye-witness identification from the investigating officer. A reasonable officer in the same circumstances and possessing the same knowledge as these officers could have believed that probable cause existed to arrest Plaintiff as a fugitive. Plaintiff has thus failed to meet his burden to demonstrate a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.

         b. Clearly Established Law

         Even if Plaintiff could show the Rockdale Defendants violated his constitutional rights by arresting him, he fails to meet his burden of showing they violated clearly established law. The core question on this prong of the qualified immunity analysis is “whether it was already clearly established, as a matter of law, that at the time of Plaintiff's arrest, an objective officer could not have concluded reasonably that probable cause existed to arrest Plaintiff under the particular circumstances Defendants confronted.” Gates, 884 F.3d at 1303 (emphasis removed).

         A constitutional right is only clearly established for qualified immunity purposes if “every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658, 664 (2012) (internal quotation marks omitted) (alteration adopted). Put differently, “existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate” to give the official fair warning that his conduct violated the law. Id.; Coffin v. Brandau, 642 F.3d 999, 1013 (11th Cir. 2011) (en banc) (“The critical inquiry is whether the law provided [defendant officers] with fair warning that [their] conduct violated the Fourth Amendment.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). The Supreme Court has explained that the question is “whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that the conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.” See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 202 (2001). “If the law did not put the officer on notice that his conduct would be clearly unlawful, summary judgment based on qualified immunity is appropriate.” Id.

         A plaintiff typically shows that a defendant's conduct violated clearly established law by pointing to “materially similar precedent from the Supreme Court, [the Eleventh Circuit], or the highest state court in which the case arose.” Gates, 884 F.3d at 1296. While the facts of the case need not be identical, “the unlawfulness of the conduct must be apparent from pre-existing law.” Coffin, 642 F.3d at 1013.

         In White v. Pauly, the Supreme Court reiterated “the longstanding principle that ‘clearly established law' should not be defined ‘at a high level of generality.' ” 137 S.Ct. 548, 552 (2017) (quoting al-Kidd, 563 U.S. at 742). The Supreme Court held that to defeat a claim of qualified immunity, a plaintiff must “identify a case where an officer acting under similar circumstances as [the defendant] was held to have violated the Fourth Amendment.” Id. “[G]eneral statements of the law are not inherently incapable of giving fair and clear warning to officers.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Instead, “the clearly established law must be ‘particularized' to the facts of the case.” Id. The Supreme Court has also explained that avoiding ...

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