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Lane v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 30, 2016

ELLA LANE, et al., Plaintiffs,
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants.


          Randolph D. Moss United States District Judge

         This is one of a series of cases pending before this Court seeking damages from the Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") and individual officers for allegedly searching private homes without probable cause.[1] The common thread in each case is an attack on the MPD's practice of seeking search warrants based on an averment that the investigating officer "knows" based on his or her "training and experience" that individuals suspected of certain crimes- typically involving the illegal distribution of drugs or unlawful possession of a gun-are likely to have evidence of their unlawful activity in their homes. In each case, the plaintiff alleges that the officer who submitted the affidavit in support of the warrant knew, or should have known, that just the opposite is true-that, in fact, people who are arrested outside their homes on drug or gun charges rarely keep evidence of their illegal activity in their homes.

         Although all of these cases rely on this common theme, each is also unique. Some involve drug arrests, some guns, and some both. Some involve little or no evidence of a nexus to the residence searched, while others involve a more substantial connection. And most involve additional allegations of police misconduct, separate from the alleged deficiencies in the warrant or supporting affidavit. As a result, just as a magistrate must "make . . . practical, common-sense decision[s] [based on] all of the circumstances set forth in the affidavit, " Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 238 (1983), the Court must independently evaluate the particular circumstances presented in each of these cases.

         The present dispute began when the investigating officer found a handgun in the pocket of a jacket left by one of three men on the top step of a walkway leading from the street to the house where one of the three men (Terrence Crossland) lived with his mother (Adrian Crossland) and grandmother (Ella Lane). That discovery led to Terrance Crossland's arrest (along with the other two men), a brief warrantless search of the Crossland/Lane home, the subsequent issuance of a warrant to search the home for various items relating to the ownership and use of firearms, and a second, more extensive search of the home. No evidence of illegality was found in either search of the home, and the MPD ultimately declined to bring any charges against Terrance Crossland. Following these events, Terrance Crossland, Adrian Crossland and Ella Lane brought this action, challenging the legality of virtually all of the actions of the police officers that day, from their initial interaction with Terrance Crossland on the steps outside his home through their second search of the Crossland/Lane home later that evening. Their complaint names the officer who submitted the affidavit in support of the search warrant, five other named officers, an unspecified number of unnamed officers, and the MPD itself.

         The MPD, the District, and the individual officers (collectively, the "District") have moved to dismiss the complaint, principally on the grounds that the officers' conduct was lawful; that, in any event, the individual officers are protected by qualified immunity; and that the plaintiffs have failed to allege a claim against the MPD under Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). Dkt. 9. For the reasons explained below, the Court will GRANT the motion in part and DENY it in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         For purposes of the defendants' motion to dismiss, the following allegations from the complaint are taken as true.[2] See, e.g., Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984). In addition, the search warrant and supporting affidavit are attached to the complaint and are thus properly before the Court for purposes of resolving the defendants' motion. See EEOC v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial Sch., 117 F.3d 621, 624 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (explaining that when considering a motion to dismiss, a court may "consider only the facts alleged in the complaint, any documents either attached to or incorporated in the complaint and matters of which we may take judicial notice.").

         According to the complaint, MPD officers John Wright and Timothy Haselden, along with an unnamed third officer, were patrolling in a cruiser in northeast Washington, D.C, on October 27, 2012, when they saw three men sitting on the steps outside the Crossland/Lane home. Compl. ¶ 16; Dkt. 1-1 at 2. Wright saw one of them smoking a "hand-rolled cigar, " which he believed to be marijuana. Compl. ¶ 17. He "also observed a [s]tyrofoam cup, which he [later] asserted 'is often used by people when they drink alcohol.'" Id. (quoting Dkt. 1-1 at 3). He pulled over to question the men. Id.

         On the steps were Darrell Boatwright, Terrance Crossland, and Benjamin Crutchfield. Dkt. 1-1 at 2. Crutchfield was smoking the "cigar." Id. Crossland and Crutchfield were both wearing jackets; Boatwright was not.[3] Id. The styrofoam cup was next to Boatwright's left foot. Id. at 3. After exiting the cruiser, Wright "immediately . . . ordered the men to stay where they were." Compl. ¶ 50. Although Wright later averred in an application submitted for a warrant to search the Crossland/Lane home that the three men then consented to a search, see Dkt. 1-1 at 3, the complaint disputes that assertion, alleging that the officers "immediately searched the men, " a search that "include[ed] putting their hands into the[ir] pockets." Compl. ¶ 50. That search did not yield any contraband from any of the men. Id. ¶ 51. Wright then asked the three men for identification and asked whether they lived at the house. Id. ¶ 18. Crossland said he did, and he handed over his identification, which listed an address matching the house. Id. Wright also asked Crutchfield to put out the "cigar." Id. Crutchfield complied but explained that he was smoking "Scoobie Snacks, " a synthetic marijuana, and not "real weed." Id.; Dkt. 1-1 at 3. Boatwright and Crutchfield also provided their identification. Dkt. 1-1 at 3. Having found nothing warranting further action, Wright granted the three men permission to move to the front porch. Compl. ¶¶ 20, 51.

         According to Wright's affidavit, Boatwright "neglect[ed] to pick up [a] red jacket that was next to him" when the men got up to move. Compl. ¶ 51; Dkt. 1-1 at 3. Wright claims he then told the group that they had left the jacket behind, but "[t]he three collectively denied ownership of the jacket." Dkt. 1-1 at 3. A bottle of Hennessy (a cognac) was apparently protruding from one of the pockets of the jacket, and, according to Wright, he told the three men that he would keep it if none of the men claimed the jacket. Id. At that point, according to Wright's affidavit, Crossland responded, "yeah man, it's my jacket[;] I got it." Id. The affidavit adds, however, that Wright "found this to be strange because [Crossland] was already wearing a jacket and . . . Boatwright was the only individual in the group to not have a jacket on." Id. Wright, accordingly, told Boatwright to sit back down. Id. Wright then searched the red jacket and found a handgun. Id. at 3-4. Wright called for backup after finding the gun, and five more officers arrived at the scene. Id. at 4. They placed all three men under arrest for carrying a pistol and possessing an open container of alcohol. Id. This latter charge was based on the officers' belief that the liquid in the styrofoam cup smelled like Hennessy.[4] Crutchfield was also charged with "Possession of Other in reference to the synthetic marijuana." Id.

         The complaint tells a different story than the affidavit, and it is that story that is controlling for purposes of the pending motion to dismiss. See Hishon, 467 U.S. at 73. Instead of Wright threatening to keep the bottle of Hennessy, the complaint alleges that Wright "threatened to smash the glass alcohol bottle on the steps of the property if the men did not take the jacket." Compl ¶ 51. And instead of Crossland saying "it's my jacket, " the complaint alleges that Crossland merely responded to Wright's demand that someone take the jacket to avoid Wright's threat to break the bottle on Crossland's walkway. Id. Plaintiffs agree in their complaint that Wright then searched the red jacket and found the handgun. Id.

         Overhearing the commotion outside, seventy-one year-old Ella Lane emerged from the house and took pictures of the officers as they searched and then arrested the three men, including her grandson. Compl. ¶ 52. After placing the men under arrest, several officers walked up to the porch where Lane was standing and asked if they could go into the home to speak with her. Id. ¶ 54. She refused entry, offering instead to speak with the officers outside. Id. The officers explained that they had found a gun on one of the men and that they wanted to search her home. Id. ¶¶ 54-55. Lane asked whether Wright had a warrant, and he responded, "[No], but I'm going in anyway." Id. ¶ 55. He then walked past Lane and into her home along with another, unnamed officer. Id. ¶ 56. She tried to follow them in, but Haselden "grabbed [her] by the arm" and "forcibly pulled her back and restrained her from going back into her own house." Id. ¶¶ 56-57. Wright and the unnamed officer searched the house for approximately ten minutes. Id. ¶ 58. It does not appear that they found anything relevant or took anything with them following the search.

         After this initial search, Wright left to seek a search warrant. Compl. ¶ 64. Three officers "remained with . . . Lane to guard the house, " and they did not allow Lane to re-enter her home while they awaited the warrant. Id. ¶ 65. As a result, Lane waited outside on an "uncomfortably chilly" October evening for "nearly four hours" and could not retrieve food or water or use the bathroom in her home. Id. ¶¶ 65-67. She was finally able to use a bathroom when her daughter, Adrian Crossland, came home and took her to a nearby McDonald's. Id. ¶67.

         While Lane was forced to wait outside her home, Wright prepared the affidavit that included his account of the events stated above, and he then applied for and obtained a warrant to search the Crossland/Lane home. See Dkt. 1-1. In addition to describing the events that led up to the arrest of the three men, the affidavit described a number of events that occurred after the officers and three men arrived at the police station. At the station, police officers identified the seized firearm by its serial number as stolen, and all three men were then "additionally charged with Unregistered Firearm and Unregistered Ammunition." Id. at 4. The officers also examined the gun and learned that it contained five rounds of ammunition in its magazine and one in its chamber. Id. According to the affidavit, Boatwright "admitted to purchasing the Hennessy, admitted the styrofoam cup with the liquid was his, . . . admitted the red jacket was his, [and] admitted the weapon was his." Id. Significantly, the affidavit explained that Boatwright correctly identified "the weapon [as] a '25' (.25 Caliber)" pistol and correctly stated that "it was loaded with six (6) cartridges (rounds of ammunition) and that it was not registered." Id.

         The affidavit noted that Crossland admitted that he lived at the home that the officers sought to search and that his D.C. driver's license confirmed this fact. Id. It also stated that a woman named "Ella" came out of the house and told the officers that both she and Crossland lived there. Id. Of particular relevance, the affidavit further stated:

Based on your affiant's training, experience and participation in narcotic and drug related investigations, your affiant knows that, persons involved in illegal activities maintain books, records, documentation and other papers relating to the ordering, sales and servicing of their firearms. I know that the aforementioned items are generally maintained where persons involved in criminal activity can obtain and read[ily] access them. I also know that there people keep their firearms and ammunition inside of their homes. One reason is to keep the police from recovering the firearms and another is to protect themselves from being robbed while inside their homes by others involved in illegal activities. Ammunition in your Affiant's experience is sold in boxes, known as 'Bricks" containing 50 rounds of ammunition. In your Affiant's experience, it is extremely uncommon for individual rounds of ammunition to be sold. Since many guns, including the larger assault weapon models, do not carry 50 rounds of ammunition, it is very common that individuals store their extra ammunition in their places of residence.

Id. at 5. The affidavit concluded by requesting a search warrant for the Crossland/Lane home "for the reasons set forth and for any other evidence of a crime that may be found." Id. The affidavit did not disclose that the requesting officers had already conducted an initial ten-minute search of the home and that, during that brief search, they found no evidence of illegal activity. See Compl. ¶¶ 56-59.

         Judge Gregory Jackson of the Superior Court for the District of Columbia signed the search warrant, permitting the MPD to search the plaintiffs' home for "[a]mmunition, [h]olsters, [t]argets, [g]un [c]leaning kits, [o]ther [f]irearms, [n]otes, [l]edgers, [d]ocumentation and other [p]apers [r]elating to the [o]rdering, [s]ales, [s]ervicing and use of their [f]irearms and [o]ther [i]tems [r]elated to [i]legal [p]ossession of [f]irearms." Dkt. 1-1 at 1. The MPD executed the search warrant, while Lane, now accompanied by her daughter, continued to wait outside. Compl. ¶¶ 64-70. The complaint further alleges that the officers who conducted the search "physically abused and verbally threatened" Lane. One officer, for example, allegedly told Lane that he would force her to move from her home if he was ever called back to the house. Id. ¶¶ 6, 71. In addition, at some point during one of the two searches, an MPD officer allegedly deleted from Lane's camera the photographs that she had taken of the arrest of her grandson earlier that day. Id. ¶¶ 7, 73. The officers also "tore apart" Adrian Crossland's bedroom. Id. ¶ 74. It took the family three days to clean up the mess left behind after the search. Id. Terrence Crossland, meanwhile, spent the weekend in jail and was released on October 30, 2013. Id. ¶ 77. No charges were filed against him in connection to the incident. Id. The MPD has not yet returned a cellphone they took from Crossland when they arrested him. Id. ¶ 98.


         A party moving to dismiss a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) bears the burden of showing that the complaint "fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6); see also Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain 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 Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556, 570, (2007)). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. The Court need not accept as true any legal conclusions disguised as factual allegations, '"naked assertion[s]' devoid of 'further factual enhancement, '" or a '"formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557) (alteration in original). The plaintiff, however, is entitled to "the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged." Am. Natl Ins. Co. v. FDIC, 642 F.3d 1137, 1139 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (quoting Thomas v. Principi, 394 F.3d 970, 972 (D.C. Cir. 2005)).

         Police officers enjoy qualified immunity from personal liability for civil damages if "their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). This limited protection "balances two important interests-the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably." Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009). "The 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." Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 202 (2001). The law is "[o]rdinarily" clearly established if there is "a Supreme Court or Circuit decision" on the issue or [if] the clearly established weight of authority from other courts . . . ha[s] found the law to be as the plaintiff maintains." Doe v. District of Columbia, 796 F.3d 96, 104 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quoting Currier v. Doran, 242 F.3d 905, 923 (10th Cir. 2001)). There need not be "a case directly on point" for the right to be clearly established, "but existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate" at the time the alleged violation occurred. Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011). In other words, the "contours" of the right must be "sufficiently clear" so that any "reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987). A plaintiff seeking to overcome a claim of qualified immunity bears the burden of showing that the constitutional right that the officers allegedly violated was clearly established at the relevant time. See Dukore v. District of Columbia, 799 F.3d 1137, 1145 (D.C. Cir. 2015).

         III. ANALYSIS

         The allegations in the complaint are far-ranging, challenging the lawfulness of the MPD officers' initial stop and search of the men on the steps outside the Crossland/Lane home, the search of the red jacket, Crossland's arrest, the initial search of the home, the refusal to allow Lane to enter her home for several hours, the refusal to return Crossland's cellphone, the deletion of the photographs from Lane's camera, insults that the officers directed at Lane during and after the search, the accuracy of information included in the application for a search warrant, and the omission of other relevant information from the application. Compl. ¶¶ 85-86, 89-90, 93-100. For present purposes, however, the Court will limit is analysis to the five specific issues raised in the defendants' motion to dismiss: (1) whether the MPD officers had probable cause to arrest Crossland; (2) whether their "protective sweep" of the Crossland/Lane home was lawful; (3) whether the application for the warrant for the subsequent search was supported by probable cause; (4) whether the MPD officers who executed the search acted lawfully; and (5) whether the complaint states a claim for municipal liability under Monell. [5]

         A. Arrest of Crossland

         The complaint alleges that the officers who arrested Crossland acted without "probable cause to believe that he had committed any offense." Compl. ¶ 98. To avoid the defendants' qualified immunity defense with respect to this claim, Crossland must show (1) that the arresting officers violated Crossland's rights under the Fourth Amendment and (2) that "it would have been clear to a reasonable officer that [their] conduct was unlawful in the situation [they] confronted." Saucier, 533 U.S. at 202. As explained below, the Court cannot conclude at this stage of the proceeding that the arresting officers are protected by qualified immunity.

         1. Warrantless Arrest

         The Fourth Amendment safeguards "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, " and provides that "no [w]arrants shall issue, but upon probable cause." U.S. Const, amend. IV. Although use of a warrant is the preferred course, "a warrantless arrest by a law officer is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment where there is probable cause to believe that a criminal offense has been or is being committed."[6] Devenpeckv. Afford, 543 U.S. 146, 152 (2004). Probable cause "is a practical, non-technical conception" that considers "the facts and circumstances within [the officers'] knowledge and [about] which they had reasonably trustworthy information." Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 175-76 (1949). The inquiry focuses on what a reasonable officer would understand about the situation at hand and the arresting officer's actual "state of mind . . . is irrelevant." Devenpeck, 543 U.S. at 153. The information available to the arresting officer must be sufficient to "warrant a man of reasonable caution [to] belie[ve] that an offense has been or is being committed, " Brinegar, 338 U.S. at 175-76, by the specific "person to be . . . seized, " Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 371 (2003). In this respect, "Fourth Amendment case law makes clear that an officer cannot predicate a search or seizure on an individual's 'mere propinquity to others independently suspected of criminal activity.'" Barham v. Ramsey, 434 F.3d 565, 573 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Ybarra v. Illinois, 444 U.S. 85, 91 (1979)).

         Here, Crossland was arrested (and held over the weekend) for carrying a pistol and possessing an open container of alcohol. See Dkt. 1-1 at 4. Given that Crossland was twenty-eight years-old, see Compl. ¶ 12, was sitting on his own property, id. ¶ 16 & n.2, and, in any event, was not holding or sitting next to the styrofoam cup containing what the officers believed to be alcohol, see Dkt. 1-1 at 2-3, it is not surprising that the defendants do not seek to defend his arrest based on the open container charge.[7] They do argue, however, that there was probable cause to arrest Crossland for the illegal possession of handgun. See Dkt. 9 at 11. As explained below, the Court concludes that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest Crossland on that ground as well.

         As an initial matter, Crossland argues that the arresting officers lacked probable cause because Wright's search of the jacket that contained the gun was itself unconstitutional. Dkt. 11 at 33. According to Wright's affidavit, after the officers' initial interaction with Boatwright, Crossland, and Crutchfield, the three men stood to move to the front porch. When Boatwright got up to move, however, he "neglect[ed] to pick up the red jacket that was next to him." Dkt. 1-1 at 3. Wright then said, "hey guys, ya'll left your jacket, " and "[t]he three collectively responded denying ownership." Id. Putting aside for the moment Wright's intervening exchange with Crossland, which is contested, the parties agree that Wright subsequently searched the jacket and found the gun. Id; Compl. ¶ 23. As Wright later explained, that search was premised on the theory that the jacket was "abandoned property, " which Wright searched "in an effort to ascertain" who owned it. Dkt. 1-1 at 3.

         Crossland argues that this theory of abandonment is flawed as a matter of fact and law. He argues that Wright could not reasonably have believed that the jacket, which was located on private property and rolled up next to Boatwright on the steps, was abandoned property, and he contends that the concept of abandonment is inapplicable, as a matter of law, to property that is not left in a "public place." Dkt. 11 at 34. The defendants, in response, argue that property is deemed "abandoned" for purposes of the Fourth Amendment when "[a] voluntary denial of ownership demonstrates sufficient intent of dissociation to prove abandonment." Dkt. 12 at 9 (quoting United States v. Lewis, 921 F.2d 1294, 1302 (D.C. Cir. 1990)).

         As the defendants correctly argue, see Dkt. 9 at 7, Wright's search of the jacket is irrelevant to Crossland's claim that his arrest was unlawful. For present purposes, Crossland acknowledges that the jacket, in fact, belonged to Boatwright. See Compl. ¶¶ 26-27'. The Fourth Amendment, however, covers places and property only in which the individual seeking its protection has a "reasonable expectation of privacy." Katz v. United States,389 U.S. 347, 360 (1967) (Harlan, J., concurring). That is, Fourth Amendment rights "are personal" and "may not be vicariously asserted." Alderman v. United States,394 U.S. 165, 174 (1969). As a result, "[a] person who is aggrieved by an illegal search and seizure only through the introduction of damaging evidence secured by a search of a third person's premises or property has not had any of his Fourth Amendment rights infringed." Rakas v. Illinois,439 U.S. 128, 134, (1978); see also United States v. Leon,468 U.S. 897, 905-06 (1984) ("The Fourth Amendment contains no provision expressly precluding the use of evidence obtained in violation of its commands, and an examination of its origin and purposes makes clear that the use of fruits of a past unlawful search or seizure 'work[s] no new Fourth Amendment wrong.'" ...

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