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Dorsey v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 11, 2017

NIKA DORSEY, et al., Plaintiffs,
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants.


          ROSEMARY M. COLLYER United States District Court

         On the evening of June 7, 2013, officers of the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) executed a search warrant at 4701 Alabama Avenue S.W., Apartment 31. Without announcing their presence, the officers breached the door of the apartment and then handcuffed and detained most of its occupants: a husband and wife, a sixteen-year-old boy, and a grandmother. Only a three-year-old was left without handcuffs but frightened and in tears; the officers refused to remove the mother's handcuffs so that she could comfort him. The search was aimed at recovering several Burberry purses stolen from a Virginia store, but no purses were located. The officer who obtained the warrant had sworn that he was likely to find evidence of the crime at the home because it was an address at which the get-away car was registered and the car's primary driver was reported to live; based on his “training and experience, ” the officer also sought to search for and seize all electronic devices.

         Nika Dorsey and her two children, occupants of Apt. 31 on June 7, sue for alleged violations of their constitutional rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Defendants are: (1) William Dempster, the MPD officer who swore out the affidavit for the search warrant; (2) the MPD officers who, in addition to Officer Dempster, executed the search warrant (“Defendant Officers”[1]); and (3) the District of Columbia. See 2d Am. Compl. [Dkt. 24] ¶¶ 16-18. Plaintiffs assert that Officer Dempster relied on his “training and experience” to obtain the warrant despite knowing that D.C. warrants based on “training and experience, ” without specific facts, rarely find what is sought. Plaintiffs also claim that the officers who executed the search warrant acted in an unconstitutional manner, breaching the door without announcing their presence, using unreasonable force in their search, and overstepping the scope of the warrant. They allege that these constitutional violations occurred as a result of a pattern and practice of faulty training by the District of Columbia.

         All Defendants have moved to dismiss except William Dempster, who has left MPD and has not been served.[2] See Def. District of Columbia's Mot. to Dismiss Pls.' 2d Am. Compl. [Dkt. 27] (DC MTD); Def. Officers' Partial Mot. to Dismiss Counts I, II and V of Pls.' 2d Amended Compl. [Dkt. 28] (Officers' MTD).[3] The Court will grant the Motions to Dismiss in part and deny them in part.

         I. Background

         On June 3, 2013, two people stole nine Burberry purses from a Leesburg, Virginia outlet store and fled in a dark BMW with the license plate EE0674. Two days later, MPD officers spotted the same dark BMW in Northeast DC, when they attempted a traffic stop and the car sped away. Notified of this occurrence, Officer William Dempster, a specialist in auto theft, ran the plates, and learned that title to the BMW was held by two people, one of whom was Francis Taylor. Mr. Taylor carried the insurance on the car and was identified as its primary driver. His driver's license indicated that he lived at 4701 Alabama Ave. S.W., Apt. 31.

         Several unnamed sources confirmed to Officer Dempster that Mr. Taylor's current address was Apt. 31, 4701 Alabama Ave. S.W. Armed with these pieces of information, Officer Dempster prepared an affidavit and applied for a search warrant to authorize MPD to search the apartment. While he had no direct information that evidence of the theft would be found in Apt. 31, Officer Dempster swore that his “training and experience” led him to conclude that thieves typically stash stolen items in their homes until they can sell them safely. 2d Am. Compl. Ex. 1 (Affidavit for Search Warrant) (Affidavit) at 1. The Affidavit also contained boilerplate paragraphs to the effect that thieves typically take photos of themselves with their stolen goods and otherwise document their activities using cell phones and personal computers; thus, Officer Dempster sought authorization to seize all personal electronic devices and computers located during the search of Apt. 31. Id. A judicial officer of the District of Columbia Superior Court issued the requested search warrant (Warrant). Id. at 5.

         Plaintiffs allege that Francis Taylor did not reside at Apt. 31, 4701 Alabama Ave., S.W., at the time of the search and that he had not hidden any Burberry purses there. When the Warrant was executed, the only occupants of the apartment were Mr. Taylor's cousin, Nika Dorsey, her husband, mother, and her two youngest children, 16-year-old Jonte Watts and three-year old J.C. Plaintiffs assert that none of these persons had any connection to, or knowledge of, the crime. Without knocking or announcing their presence, the MPD officers breached the apartment's door, trained weapons on the family inside, detained them, and handcuffed everyone except three-year-old J.C., who was terrified and screamed and cried. The officers refused to release Ms. Dorsey from handcuffs at any time during the search so that she could comfort J.C. As part of their search, the officers confiscated all cell phones and a laptop computer. After two hours of searching, the officers left without any purses.

         Plaintiffs cite statistics that indicate that a large majority of D.C. warrants that rely on “training and experience” to establish probable cause find no evidence at the residence searched; thus, they contend, the unsuccessful outcome of this particular search was both typical and totally predictable. Given the widespread use of such allegedly-flawed affidavits, Plaintiffs contend that D.C. has a pattern and practice of insufficient training of MPD officers that frequently results in constitutional violations of the City's residents. Accordingly, Plaintiffs sue Officer Dempster, the Defendant Officers, and the District of Columbia.

         II. Legal Standards

         The Complaint advances five separate “Claims:” (1) that the Affidavit was so lacking in probable cause that no reasonable officer could have relied on it; (2) that the Affidavit contained statements that were knowingly and recklessly false and omitted material information; (3) that the false and reckless statements and omissions in the Affidavit robbed the Warrant of probable cause and were the result of a pattern and practice by MPD; (4) that the Officers violated Plaintiffs' constitutional rights when they failed to knock and announce their presence before entering the apartment; and (5) that the Officers violated Plaintiffs' constitutional rights when they exceeded the scope of the Warrant, used excessive force, and made unnecessary and unreasonable seizures not authorized by the Warrant. See 2d Am. Compl. at 19-22.

         The Defendant Officers move to dismiss, asserting that they are entitled to qualified immunity for their good faith reliance on what they believed was a valid warrant properly executed. See Officer's MTD at 1. The District of Columbia also moves to dismiss, arguing that Plaintiffs have fail to state any constitutional violations and therefore cannot sue D.C. See DC MTD at 1.

         A. Motion to Dismiss

         A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) challenges the adequacy of a complaint on its face. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual information, 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 Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). A court must assume the truth of all well-pleaded factual allegations and construe reasonable inferences from those allegations in favor of the plaintiff. Sissel v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 760 F.3d 1, 4 (D.C. Cir. 2014). A court need not accept inferences drawn by a plaintiff if such inferences are not supported by the facts set out in the complaint. Kowal v. MCI Commc'ns Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994). Further, a court does not need to accept as true legal conclusions set forth in a complaint. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. In deciding a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), a court may consider the facts alleged in the complaint, documents attached to the complaint as exhibits or incorporated by reference, and matters about which the court may take judicial notice. Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. v. Chao, 508 F.3d 1052, 1059 (D.C. Cir. 2007).

         B. Qualified Immunity

         In assessing whether Plaintiffs have pleaded sufficient factual information to state a plausible claim for relief, the Court must additionally consider whether the Defendant Officers are entitled to qualified immunity for their alleged actions. “Although government officials may be sued in their individual capacities for damages . . . qualified immunity protects officials from liability ‘insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'” Atherton v. D.C. Office of Mayor, 567 F.3d 672, 689 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818-19 (1982)). “When determining whether a right was ‘clearly established, ' ‘the contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.'” Id. (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987)). “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). It is the Plaintiffs' “burden to show that the particular right in question-narrowly described to fit the factual pattern confronting the officers-was clearly established.” Dukore v. District of Columbia, 799 F.3d 1137, 1145 (D.C. Cir. 2015).

         C. Monell Liability

         If Plaintiffs have adequately pled a violation of their constitutional rights (whether or not the Defendant Officers are entitled to qualified immunity), they can only sue the District of Columbia if they can further show that a custom or policy of the District caused the violation. “[W]hen execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury” then “the government as an entity is responsible.” Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). “[I]n considering whether a plaintiff has stated a claim for municipal liability, the district court must conduct a two-step inquiry. First, the court must determine whether the complaint states a claim for a predicate constitutional violation. Second, if so, then the court must determine whether the complaint states a claim ...

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