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Pitts v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 31, 2016

PATRICE PITTS, et al., Plaintiffs,
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants.


TANYA S. CHUTKAN, United States District Judge

In this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Patrice Pitts and her son Michael Pitts challenge the Metropolitan Police Department’s practice of obtaining home search warrants based on nothing more than street arrests for gun possession and an officer’s purported “training and experience” regarding the habits and tendencies of gun possessors. Plaintiffs allege that twelve named MPD officers and an unspecified number of “John Doe” MPD officers (collectively, the “MPD Officer Defendants”) violated Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights when they broke down their front door, ransacked their home, and subjected them to humiliating and invasive searches, including a rectal cavity search of Michael Pitts conducted in full view of his mother and partner. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that

i. the MPD Officer Defendant who swore out an affidavit in support of the warrant to search their home violated the Fourth Amendment by obtaining the warrant based on (a) knowingly and recklessly false statements and material omissions (Count II), and (b) information that was itself obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment (Count III);
ii. the MPD Officer Defendants violated the Fourth Amendment in relying on the search warrant because it was so facially lacking in probable cause that no reasonable officer could have relied on it in good faith (Count I);
iii. the MPD Officer Defendants violated the Fourth Amendment in executing the search warrant by
a. failing to knock and announce prior to entering their apartment (Counts V and VI),
b. strip searching Michael Pitts, which entailed exposing and probing his genitals and anal cavity in front of both his mother and his partner (Count VII),
c. conducting an extended search for drugs despite the fact that the warrant pertained only to firearms and related items (Count VII), and
d. unjustifiably handcuffing them for the entire duration of the search (Count VII); and
iv. the MPD Officer Defendants violated the Fifth Amendment in executing the search warrant by engaging in conduct that shocks the conscience (Count VII).

Plaintiffs also bring a Monell claim for municipal liability against the District of Columbia, asserting that the Fourth Amendment violation described in paragraph (i)(a) above was the result of a policy, pattern and custom of such conduct by the MPD, as well as the MPD’s failure to properly train and supervise its officers (Count IV).

Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). They argue that the MPD Officer Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity because Plaintiffs have not sufficiently alleged a violation of their clearly established constitutional rights. They also argue that Plaintiffs cannot make out a Monell violation because they cannot point to any predicate constitutional violation.

Upon consideration of Defendants’ Motion and the parties’ respective submissions, and for the reasons set forth below, Defendants’ Motion is hereby GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.


Plaintiffs, 56-year-old Patrice Pitts and her 37-year-old son Michael Pitts, [1] allege that on the evening of March 26, 2013, the heavily armed MPD Officer Defendants broke down the front door of their Southeast Washington, D.C. apartment without knocking and announcing their presence while executing a search warrant. The warrant application was based on the affidavit of MPD Officer Defendant Mark Pugh (the “Affidavit”). The events leading up to and including the execution of the search warrant are set forth below.

a. Tyrone Pitts Is Arrested On The Sidewalk In Front Of Plaintiffs’ Apartment Building

According to Pugh’s Affidavit, on March 23, 2013 (three days before the search was executed), Pugh and two other officers were conducting a “Robbery Suppression Operation in PSAs 704, 705 and 708, ” which the Affidavit describes as being “known for having large amounts of street robberies involving firearms.” (Am. Compl. Ex. 1 (“Warrant”) at 3). The Affidavit states that one officer had received information that an individual who frequented the front of Plaintiffs’ apartment building at 3921 4th Street S.E. was armed with a handgun. (Id.). The Affidavit further states that, during the operation, the officers noticed Tyrone Pitts, [2] who is Patrice’s uncle, and who was then 64 years old, standing on the sidewalk in front of the apartment building wearing dark clothing. (Id.).

According to the Affidavit, when Tyrone noticed the officers’ presence, he attempted to avoid eye contact and appeared unsure of where he wanted to go. (Id.). The officers then “made contact” with Tyrone and asked him “if he had anything illegal on his person. [He] replied ‘No, you can check, ’” and raised both of his arms in the air. (Id.). Pugh then conducted a protective pat-down for weapons and felt a metal object in the front of Tyrone’s waistband, which turned out to be a nine-millimeter semi-automatic handgun loaded with eleven rounds of ammunition. (Id.). Tyrone was then arrested for possessing the handgun. (Id. at 4). Record searches subsequently determined that he was not licensed to carry a pistol in the District of Columbia and had not registered any firearms or ammunition in the District. (Id.).

Plaintiffs challenge certain of the Affidavit’s assertions regarding Tyrone’s arrest. Most notably, they allege that Tyrone did not spontaneously declare to the officers that they could search him for weapons, and that, “[i]n reality, [he] was forcibly stopped on the street by MPD officers and immediately frisked and searched without ever providing consent.” (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 43-44).

b. The MPD Conducts Reconnaissance Of The Apartment Before Seeking The Warrant

According to the Affidavit, after his arrest, Tyrone informed MPD officers that he lived in apartment number two at 3921 4th Street S.E. (Warrant at 4). Later that day, a uniformed MPD officer visited the apartment. (Id.). The officer was met at the door by Patrice, who - apparently unaware that her uncle was already in custody - stated that she was Tyrone’s niece, and that Tyrone lived there, but was not home. (Id.).

Plaintiffs allege that, based on this interaction between the MPD officer and Patrice, the MPD Officer Defendants “knew before their invasion into the home that [Patrice] is frail, disabled and barely able to move.” (Am. Compl. ¶ 54).

c. Officer Pugh Applies For The Search Warrant

After Tyrone’s arrest and the MPD’s reconnaissance of the apartment where the Pitts family lived, Officer Pugh applied for a warrant to search (i) “the entire premise” of the apartment “for the seizure of additional guns, additional ammunition and other gun related items, photographs or paperwork that reflect the possession of firearms, or paperwork reflecting who inhabits the residence, ” as well as (ii) “any occupants located within the premises.” (Warrant at 4).

As Plaintiffs note, Pugh’s Affidavit did not cite any particularized facts about Plaintiffs’ apartment that would tend to indicate that the police were likely to find guns or gun-related items there; instead, the only evidence connecting the apartment to any criminal activity was the fact that a person who lived there (Tyrone) had been arrested three days earlier for possessing a gun on the street outside the apartment. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 16, 22). Accordingly, Pugh’s warrant application was based on the foregoing recitation of the circumstances surrounding Tyrone’s arrest and the MPD’s reconnaissance of the apartment, as well as Pugh’s (i) training from the MPD “Institute of Police Science” in the illegal possession of firearms; (ii) experience “as an officer enforcing laws against the illegal possession of firearms” and “affecting arrests of individuals illegally possessing firearms”; and (iii) “work with other veteran police officers, investigators and detectives, ” all of which purportedly led Pugh to “reasonably believe[]” the following:

. “That persons who keep or carry guns illegally commonly retain items associated with their firearms long after they bought or obtained the guns, . . . and, that these are almost always stored in the gun-possessor’s home”[3];
. That gun possessors “keep in storage extra ammunition for their firearms, beyond the immediate capacity of the particular firearm and, that they keep such additional ammunition in their homes”[4];
. That “it is not uncommon for a person who is found to be carrying a firearm in his possession to have stored at his home one or more additional firearms, along with additional ammunition, and papers related to the acquisition of that firearm”;
. “That many persons who illegally possess guns often have pictures taken of themselves with friends in which they display their gun or guns, ” and that such pictures are “commonly” kept at the gun possessor’s home, including on cell phones and personal computers;
. “That, even after an individual’s arrest for gun-related charges, the person’s family commonly do[es] not dispose of other firearms or ammunition; and, even if they do get rid of other guns, they are much less likely to get rid of ammunition”; and
. That, even after an individual’s arrest for gun-related charges, “hardly ever do [the arrestee’s] associates remove or get rid of gun packaging or cleaning equipment or photos of a person with a gun, and that such items will remain at the arrested individual’s home for a considerable period of time after such arrest.”

(Warrant at 2-3).

Plaintiffs allege that “Pugh’s claim that police were likely to find the firearms-related items because of the habits of [gun possessors like Tyrone] was knowingly and recklessly false, ” and that, “based on publicly available records, it was far more likely than not that the Defendants would not find each of the items sought.” (Am. Compl. ¶ 29). According to Plaintiffs, MPD search warrant inventory returns show that in the one-year period surrounding and including the execution of the search warrant here, home searches for guns and gun paraphernalia based on warrant applications that lacked particularized facts and referred only to street arrests for gun possession and MPD officers’ claimed “training and experience” failed to turn up evidence of gun ownership in the overwhelming majority of cases. (Id. ¶¶ 4b, 29-30). Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that such searches failed to find ammunition 74% of the time, failed to find guns 91% of the time and failed to find documentary or photographic evidence of gun possession at least 94% of the time. (Id.).

Plaintiffs also allege that Pugh “misled the issuing judge” in applying for the search warrant by failing to inform the judge that (i) many guns in the District “are passed and traded by individuals without documentation or records, and without the person possessing any receipts or accoutrements of legal gun ownership”; (ii) gun possessors in the District “frequently share guns with multiple other residents [of the District] and therefore often possess firearms on the street that they do not actually own”; and (iii) the MPD “trains its officers that gun possessors commonly possess [guns and gun-related items] in a variety of other places that are not their homes.” (Id. ¶¶ 31-34).[5]

d. The Search Warrant Is Issued

On the basis of the Affidavit, a D.C. Superior Court judge issued a search warrant on March 26, 2013. (Warrant at 1). Despite the fact that Officer Pugh requested a warrant authorizing a search of both “the entire premise” of the apartment and “any occupants located within the premises, ” the warrant provided for a search of the premises only. (Id. at 1, 4). The warrant stated that it was based on probable cause to believe that the apartment contained “illegal firearms, parts of firearms, firearm magazines, ammunition, holsters, gun cleaning kits, gun cases, pictures, papers or other paraphernalia relating to the ownership of a firearm, ” and authorized the seizure of such property. (Id. at 1).

e. The MPD Officer Defendants Execute The Search Warrant

Plaintiffs allege that on the evening of March 26, 2013, the heavily armed MPD Officer Defendants broke down the front door of their apartment to execute the search warrant without first knocking to announce their presence, despite the absent of any exigent circumstances that could have justified their failure to knock and announce, and despite the fact that the door was unlocked. They also allege that the door was permanently damaged by the officers’ forcible entry. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 1, 46-53).

Several officers seized and handcuffed Patrice, who had been lying in bed, “even though she is frail, disabled, and barely able to move, ” and even though she engaged in no threatening or illegal behavior. (Id. ¶¶ 55, 93). “[D]espite her repeated pleas for the painful metal cuffs to be removed” and the fact that “the house was secure, she was calm, and there was no security risk, ” the officers then brought Patrice to the living room and kept her in handcuffs as they searched the apartment. (Id. ¶ 58). Additionally, despite knowing that Tyrone was already in custody, the officers told Patrice that they would contact the housing authority and get her evicted if they found out that Tyrone was in the apartment. (Id. ¶ 59).

Meanwhile, Michael was taken from the kitchen, where he had been cooking dinner, and brought to the living room, where his mother was handcuffed. (Id. ¶ 60). One officer handcuffed him while another pulled down his pants and exposed and probed his genitals and anal cavity in front of his mother and his partner, Abimbola Idris.[6] (Id. ¶¶ 1, 24, 61, 64-65, 93). Michael was then forced to the floor. (Id. ¶ 62). Despite the fact that the warrant did not authorize a search for drugs, the officers “repeatedly shouted at [Michael] that they knew that he had drugs in the home and numerous times demanded that he show them where they could find drugs.” (Id. ¶ 66). They also told Michael that “if he did not tell them where the drugs were, his partner would go to jail.” (Id. ¶ 73). The officers also made fun of Michael for cooking dinner, and one officer “put his hands into the food that [Michael] had been preparing, ruining the family’s dinner.” (Id. ¶ 75).

Idris had just arrived home from work moments before police burst through the door. (Id. ¶ 67). A male officer asked her if she had any weapons, and she stated that she did not, and that she had just come home from work. (Id. ¶ 68). The officer then patted her down, despite the fact that she was wearing a tight dress and was clearly unarmed. (Id.). She was then handcuffed. (Id. ¶ 69). When she calmly asked why she had been handcuffed, an officer told her that everyone in the house “had” to be handcuffed before then tightening the handcuffs so that they cut into her skin, causing her significant pain and leaving a scar. (Id.). When Idris complained that the handcuffs were hurting her, she was told to shut up. (Id. ¶ 70). When an officer pointed to her briefcase, Idris asked him to be careful with it because it contained a laptop belonging to her employer. (Id. ¶ 71). The officer then “picked up the briefcase and deliberately dropped [it] onto the floor from arm height.” (Id.). Idris “asked the officer what she was supposed to tell her employer if the officer had broken her laptop, and the officer told her to tell her employer that she had been in a ‘bad neighborhood, in a bad house that she shouldn’t have been in.’” (Id. ¶ 72).

The officers “then ransacked the home, throwing the family’s belongings all around the house.” (Id. ¶ 77). They did not find any guns or any of the gun-related items described in the search warrant, nor did they find any drugs or other contraband. (Id. ¶ 77). The officers seized only some of the family’s mail, which was never returned to them. (Id. at 17 n.5; Warrant at 1). It took the Pitts family several days to clean their apartment, and the experience left them traumatized, and feeling unsafe in their own home. (Id. ¶ 79).

f. Plaintiffs’ Allegations Regarding The MPD’s Pattern, Policy And Practice Of Obtaining Warrants For Home Searches Based On Gun Arrests Outside The Home And Averments Regarding Officer “Training And Experience”

Plaintiffs allege that the MPD “has adopted a pattern, policy, and practice of instructing its officers to obtain and execute search warrants [for] the alleged residences of people on whom they find firearms during traffic and street stops . . . despite the obvious lack of any evidentiary connection to the residence, ” and despite case law from this Circuit holding that “home raids based solely on possession of a firearm somewhere away from the home clearly lack probable cause.” (Am. Compl. ¶ 39). Plaintiffs further allege that the MPD trains its officers to use barebones affidavits based on “training and experience, ” as well as “false and misleading statements about the habits of a generic category of people that it labels ‘gun possessors, ’ . . . to turn any gun arrest anywhere in the District into an automatic home raid, even though officers know that they are unlikely to find the evidence that they claim to seek” in such raids. (Id. ¶¶ 37-38).

Plaintiffs claim that in the one-year period surrounding the execution of the search warrant at issue in this case, MPD officers obtained warrants for at least 56 home searches on the basis of having found a firearm on a resident of the home during a street stop and their purported “training and experience” regarding the habits and tendencies of gun possessors, but without presenting any other evidence linking the home to any criminal activity. (Id. ΒΆ 40). As noted above, Plaintiffs ...

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