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Campbell v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 29, 2017

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants.


          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER United States District Judge

         After observing Plaintiff Bernard Campbell participate in what they suspected was a drug deal, two Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”) officers followed him into a liquor store. When one of the officers stopped Campbell to question him further, Campbell broke from the officer's grasp and attempted to exit the store. Surveillance video captured the ensuing struggle, including the officer pulling Campbell to the ground by his scarf and arresting him. A subsequent search uncovered the narcotic suboxone hidden in the lining of Campbell's jacket. Campbell was charged with assaulting a police officer and unlawful possession of a controlled substance, but prosecutors ultimately decided not to pursue either charge. Alleging that the District of Columbia and the two officers violated his constitutional rights by unlawfully seizing, arresting, and prosecuting him, Campbell later filed suit under both 42 U.S.C § 1983 and District of Columbia common law. With discovery now complete, Defendants move for summary judgment on all remaining claims on the grounds that the officers were justified in stopping and arresting Campbell, and are protected from liability by qualified immunity. Having closely examined the surveillance video, and for the reasons explained below, the Court will award summary judgment to Defendants on all claims save one-the initial investigatory stop of Mr. Campbell inside the liquor store.

         I. Background

         A. The Incident

         On the evening of March 5, 2014, veteran MPD Vice Unit officers Newton and Croson were patrolling New York Avenue N.W. in an unmarked car when they spotted Mr. Campbell facing another man at the corner of 1st Street N.W. Pl.'s Opp'n Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. (“Opp'n”), Ex. 3 (“Newton Dep.”) at 13:17-21. Officer Newton testified in his deposition that Campbell had his arm outstretched, “displaying something in his hand.” Id. at 14:11-12. At no point during this interaction, which lasted under a minute, did either officer see the other man gesture at Campbell or hand him anything. Id. at 15:1-7. Nevertheless, believing that a narcotics transaction was taking place, the officers drove towards the pair, but did not activate any emergency equipment to indicate that they were police officers. Id. at 17:2-20. Campbell then began walking east towards the corner of North Capitol Street and New York Avenue, where the iconic Big Ben liquor store is located. Id. at 18:10-12. Officer Newton, wearing a black tactical vest with “POLICE” written prominently in white on the front and back, got out of the car and followed Campbell on foot. Id. at 19:1-6. Newton started out five to ten feet behind Campbell but closed the distance to within two to three feet by the time Campbell reached the entrance of Big Ben. Id. at 22:18-22. Campbell was walking quickly, but did not run or otherwise quicken his pace while he was being followed. Id. As soon as Officer Newton entered Big Ben, he says he observed Campbell make a tossing motion toward a trash can located in the corner of the store, but did not see what was in his hand. Id. at 23:22-24:5. Newton grabbed Campbell by his waist, at which point, Newton testified, Campbell punched him in the face before attempting to flee through the open door. Id. at 28:14-21.

         Mr. Campbell recounts things differently. See Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 4 (“Campbell Dep.”). He testified in his deposition that he was on his way to Big Ben with a friend who had asked Campbell to buy alcohol for him. Id. at 11:1-9. His mother lived on 1st Street and Campbell was using a shortcut to reach New York Avenue. Id. at 11:16-22. Campbell denies ever stopping to show his friend anything and insists that he did not know he was being followed until he was inside the store and people “ran up behind [him] . . . [and] just started grabbing [him].” Id. at 14:6-18. Campbell purports not to have realized that his pursuers were police officers until well into the encounter because they did not announce themselves and “POLICE” was not clearly visible on the front of their vests. Id. at 14:14-16.

         Both parties have also submitted surveillance video footage (without audio) that captures what transpired inside Big Ben from multiple angles. See Def.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. (“MSJ”), Ex. 4 (Video). The video shows Campbell enter the store with Officer Newton close behind him. Almost immediately upon entering, Officer Newton grabs Campbell's right arm and then takes his other arm while glancing behind his right shoulder at something located off screen. Campbell-who appears to be much larger than either officer-starts to jerk in the direction of the open door while using his hands to break Officer Newton's grasp. Officer Croson at that point comes through the open doorway to assist and the two officers are able to corner Campbell. To Campbell's right is an icebox, which the officers attempt to have him bend over with his hands and face flat on its surface. When Campbell hesitates, Officer Newton puts his hand around Campbell's neck to try to force his head down to the icebox. Still unable to pull Campbell's head down, Officer Newton puts both of his hands around Campbell's neck to try again. Campbell reacts by pushing Newton in the chest. After stumbling back a few steps, Newton latches onto Campbell's scarf and uses it to pull Campbell down to the ground, where he pins him to the floor while Officer Croson calls for back-up. The two officers struggle to keep Campbell on the floor, but within minutes multiple officers arrive to assist and secure the suspect. Campbell, propped up by multiple officers, is led off camera. The video does not show Campbell punching Officer Newton, nor does it show either officer striking Campbell during this encounter.

         Sergeant Martello, the commanding officer at the scene, authorized the officers to charge Campbell with assault on a police officer, a misdemeanor offense under D.C. Code § 22-405. The arrest report states that the officers discovered suboxone sublingual film strips (a Schedule III narcotic)[1] in the lining of Campbell's jacket and recovered $300 from a trash can inside Big Ben. See Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 5 (Arrest Report). Campbell complained of dizziness and chest pains after the arrest. He was taken to a nearby hospital, but was released several hours later after tests came back negative. See Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 7 (Medical Records).

         B. Procedural History

         After his arrest on March 5, 2014, an Information charged Campbell with (1) Assaulting, Resisting or Interfering with a Police Officer in violation of D.C. Code § 22-405(b); and (2) Unlawful Possession of a Controlled Substance (Suboxone) in violation of D.C. Code § 48- 904.01(d). On September 4, 2014, weeks before the case was set for trial, the Government filed a Notice of Nolle Prosequi, indicating their intention not to pursue charges. Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 6. Campbell subsequently filed a complaint in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia against Officers Newton, Croson, and the District of Columbia, raising § 1983 and common-law tort claims. Defendants removed the case and moved for a partial dismissal, which the Court granted, dismissing all § 1983 claims brought under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment and the § 1983 and punitive damage claims against the District of Columbia. The parties proceeded to discovery, and Defendants now move for summary judgment on all remaining claims. The Court held a hearing on the motion on March 1, 2017. At the hearing, Campbell's counsel conceded that nothing found in discovery supported his negligent supervision and hiring claim. The Court therefore dismisses that claim and addresses the remaining claims below.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Summary Judgment

         The Court will grant summary judgment only if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is material if it could affect the outcome of the litigation and a dispute is genuine if it could move a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A court considering a motion for summary judgment must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-movant. Id. at 255. The court's role at this stage does not include making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence; instead, it is limited to deciding if there is a genuine issue warranting a trial. Id. at 249.

         To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, therefore, the moving party must show that the evidence, even when viewed in favor of the non-movant, cannot support an essential element of the case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). To defeat summary judgment, the non-moving party cannot simply rely on unsupported allegations or denials but must offer affidavits or other competent evidence to establish that material factual disputes exist. Id. at 324. When video evidence is available and “opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007). Rather, “in a case where the court has the benefit of video evidence, the Supreme Court has stated that ...

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