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Johnson v. Williams

November 3, 2008

GEORGE JOHNSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SERGEANT BREDET WILLIAMS, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth, Chief Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter came before the Court for a continued pretrial conference, at which the Court heard argument on defendants' pretrial Motion [24] in Limine. Defendants argue that, discovery having concluded, plaintiff has not produced evidence that would allow a reasonable jury to find for plaintiff on any of his claims. The Court agrees, and plaintiff shall be precluded from presenting all five of his alleged counts to the jury.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Shortly after 1:00 a.m. on December 21, 2005, someone called D.C. Emergency 911 and reported seeing a driver "waving a pistol." (Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 3 ("Transcription of 911 Call") [hereinafter "911 Transcript"]; "Chronology of Events" (filed Sept. 4, 2008).) The caller described the driver's vehicle and location. (911 Transcript.) The caller was not asked for, and did not give, his or her name. (Id.) The 911 system, which normally logs the number from which the call originated, was unable to obtain a number for this call. (Chronology of Events.) 911 then sent a "dispatch" via radio to patrol officers, advising them that a 911 call had reported a man waving a gun and giving the reported vehicle description and location. (Tape Recording of 911 Call and Police Dispatch, Side A, at approx. 7 min. 30 sec. (filed Sept. 4, 2008).) The dispatch did not mention the anonymity of the 911 caller. (Id.) Shortly after receiving the dispatch, Sergeant Bredet Williams and other officers stopped plaintiff's vehicle, which appeared to match the vehicle described in the dispatch. Plaintiff alleges that the officers shouted at him and his passenger, with guns drawn, and ordered them out of the vehicle. (Opp'n Ex. #4 at 3 (Pl.'s Answers to Def.'s Interrogs.).) The officers then searched plaintiff's vehicle with plaintiff's consent; no gun was found. (Id.) Officers then returned to their cruiser to run checks on plaintiff's and his passenger's identifications. (Id.) When the officers returned from their cruiser, plaintiff asked why he had been stopped. (Id.) The officers told plaintiff that the stop was the result of an anonymous 911 call. (Id.)

Plaintiff is suing the officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging illegal seizure and excessive use of force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Plaintiff includes defendant District of Columbia in those § 1983 claims on the theory that the District had a custom or policy of allowing its officers to commit such violations. Plaintiff alleges that the officers assaulted and falsely imprisoned him. Finally, plaintiff alleges that the District's negligent training and supervision of its officers caused him physical and emotional injury.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Defendants' Motion in Limine Is Procedurally Appropriate

Plaintiff maintains that defendants' motion in limine is procedurally inappropriate because if granted in full it would function as a dispositive motion, preventing plaintiff from presenting any of his claims to a jury. Although plaintiff may be correct as to the effect, that does not make defendants' motion in limine inappropriate. The Court has pretrial authority to preclude claims that are unsupported by evidence from reaching the jury. Here, defendant argues that each of plaintiff's claims lacks evidentiary support such that no reasonable jury could find in plaintiff's favor. If defendant is correct, then the Court can and should preclude plaintiff from presenting them to the jury. Thus, the Court will evaluate defendants' motion in limine based on that standard: whether, for each claim, plaintiff offers evidence such that a reasonable jury could find in plaintiff's favor.

B. Plaintiff Has No Evidence Showing That the Officers Are Not Entitled to Qualified Immunity From § 1983 Claims

Because plaintiff has not offered evidence that would allow a reasonable jury to find that the defendant officers are not entitled to qualified immunity, plaintiff will be precluded from presenting his § 1983 claims against officers to the jury. The qualified immunity inquiry involves two steps. Step 1 asks, "Taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, do the facts alleged show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right?" Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001). If the answer is "yes," then the process continues to Step 2, which asks "whether that right was clearly established" at the time of alleged violation. Id. For Step 2, "[t]he relevant, dispositive inquiry in determining whether a right is clearly established is whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted." Id. at 202. Step 2 "must be undertaken in light of the specific context of the case," id. at 201, and as such does not require that the facts be taken as alleged (unlike Step 1). The Supreme Court requires that these two analytical steps be performed in sequence, explaining its reasoning:

In the course of determining whether a constitutional right was violated on the premises alleged, a court might find it necessary to set forth principles which will become the basis for a holding that a right is clearly established. This is the process for the law's elaboration from case to case, and it is one reason for our insisting upon turning to the existence or nonexistence of a constitutional right as the first inquiry. The law might be deprived of this explanation were a court simply to skip ahead to the question whether the law clearly established that the officer's conduct was unlawful in the circumstances of the case.

Id. at 201. The question of qualified immunity should generally be resolved as early as possible, id., but it can also be resolved after discovery (as was the case in Saucier, which involved a motion for summary judgment).

1. Qualified Immunity From Unlawful Seizure Claim

Plaintiff argues that by stopping plaintiff's car on the basis of an anonymous tip, Sergeant Williams and the other officers violated plaintiff's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure. Plaintiff relies on Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266 (2000), in which the Supreme Court held that an anonymous tip that a person is carrying a gun is, without more, insufficient to justify a police stop-and-frisk.*fn1 The District advances two independent rationales for police reliance on the anonymous tip. First, the District claims that the tip included indicia of reliability-namely, the vehicle's location, description, and license plate number-that justified reliance despite the tipster's anonymity. Alternatively, the District argues that this was a case of ongoing emergency and is thereby distinguishable from J.L. The Court is unpersuaded by those rationales and concludes that the police conduct alleged by plaintiff was unconstitutional under J.L. However, the officers are nonetheless entitled to qualified immunity. A reasonable officer in the situation would not have known that the stop was unlawful, for two reasons. First, the ...


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