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Sherrod v. McHugh

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 25, 2018

VASHTI SHERROD, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
PHILLIP MCHUGH, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION RE DOCUMENT NOS. 56, 65, 66, 68

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Granting In Part District Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment; Denying Defendant Schulz's Motion for Summary Judgment; Granting in Part Plaintiffs' Motion in Limine Regarding Lewis Hicks; and Denying Plaintiffs' Motion in Limine Regarding Shana Mell

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This case illustrates the harm that may arise from even the most trivial traffic dispute, when the full weight of the justice system is brought to bear on that dispute. Plaintiffs Vashti and Eugene Sherrod and Defendant Diane Schulz were involved in a minor accident in the District of Columbia that devolved into an intense shouting match. Hours after the incident, Ms. Schulz reported to the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”) that Mrs. Sherrod threatened her with a handgun. MPD Detective Phillip McHugh, another Defendant, was assigned to investigate Ms. Schulz's accusation. He obtained a video of the incident that allegedly proves Mrs. Sherrod's innocence, yet he used the power afforded to him by the criminal justice system to stop and search the Sherrods' car, search their home, and ultimately arrest Mrs. Sherrod.

         When a grand jury refused to indict Mrs. Sherrod, the Sherrods brought this action against Ms. Schulz, Detective McHugh, and the District of Columbia (together with Detective McHugh, the “District Defendants”) on multiple constitutional and common law grounds. The Defendants have moved for summary judgment, arguing that Detective McHugh is entitled to certain immunities and that the Sherrods have failed to introduce facts supporting their claims. Both sides have also moved to exclude certain testimony. As explained below, because the Sherrods have, in fact, introduced facts that would allow a reasonable jury to find in their favor on certain claims, the Court denies the District Defendants' motion for summary judgment in part and Ms. Schulz's motion for summary judgment in full. The Court also grants the parties' motions to exclude testimony about certain topics.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. The Traffic Accident

         In early May 2015, the Sherrods and Ms. Schulz were involved in a traffic accident in front of a flower shop in the District of Columbia. See Defs.' Statement Undisputed Material Facts (“SUMF”) ¶¶ 1-4, ECF No. 68-2; Statement Material Facts Not In Dispute (“Schulz's Statement”) ¶¶ 3-4, ECF No. 66. The Sherrods are elderly, and Mr. Sherrod is legally blind. Schulz's Statement ¶ 1. According to the Sherrods, when Ms. Schulz attempted to parallel park her truck she collided with the side mirror of their car. SUMF ¶ 4; Schulz's Statement ¶ 3. This act precipitated a lengthy squabble between the Sherrods and Ms. Schulz, during which both sides cursed, made threats, and allegedly used racial epithets. Schulz's Statement ¶ 4. Before going their separate ways, the parties exchanged insurance information and Ms. Schulz recorded the vehicle identification number (“VIN”) for the Sherrods' car. SUMF ¶¶ 23-24; Dep. Sapan Patel (“Patel Dep.”) 26:1-26:17, District Defendants Mem. P & A. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. (“Defs. Mem.”) Ex. 7, ECF No. 68-9.

         In the accident's aftermath, Ms. Schulz took several steps that are key to this action. Shortly after the accident, Ms. Schulz called her insurance company to report it. Dep. Diane Schulz (“Schulz Dep.”) 67:18-77:15, Defs. Mem. Ex. 4, ECF No. 68-6. Later that day Ms. Schulz called her son and discussed the dispute, initially telling him that the Sherrods threatened her with a gun, but later admitting that she was “not sure if [she] really saw a gun.” Dep. Luciano Carafano (“Carafano Dep.”) 31:17-34:3, Pls. Opp'n Defs. Mem. & Schulz Mem. (“Pls. Opp'n.”) Ex. 2, ECF No. 76-5. Finally, several hours after the dispute and at her son's encouragement, Ms. Schulz called 911. SUMF ¶ 33; Schulz's Statement ¶ 9. She described her dispute with the Sherrods to the 911 operator, and she claimed that the “little 80 year old lady” threatened her with a gun and then “got her gun out, ” with encouragement from Mr. Sherrod. SUMF ¶¶ 34-37. This phone call triggered the investigation from which the Sherrods' claims arise.

         B. The Initial Investigatory Steps

         MPD Officer Sapan Patel was dispatched to interview Ms. Schulz after her 911 call. SUMF ¶¶ 38-41, 52-59; Schulz's Statement ¶ 10. Ms. Schulz repeated to Officer Patel that Mrs. Sherrod “attempted to intimidate me with some sort of gun or weapon.” SUMF ¶ 39. She was unable to give Officer Patel “very specific details” about the threat, but she claimed that Mrs. Sherrod pulled a “big black gun” from under her driver's seat. SUMF ¶¶ 54-57. Officer Patel was able to identify the Sherrods as the primary suspects based on the VIN that Ms. Schulz recorded during the altercation. Patel Dep. 26:1-17; see also Dep. Phillip McHugh (“McHugh Dep.”) 150:2-20, Pls. Opp'n Ex. 3, ECF No. 76-6 (stating that he “ran the VIN number” to obtain a picture of the Sherrods' car, which he showed to Ms. Schulz during their initial interview). Officer Patel initially classified Mrs. Sherrod's alleged act as a misdemeanor, but the act was subsequently reclassified as a violent crime, felony-assault with a dangerous weapon. SUMF ¶¶ 62-66.

         Detective McHugh was assigned to handle the investigation after Officer Patel conducted the initial interview. SUMF ¶ 64; Schulz's Statement ¶ 11. From the very beginning, Ms. Schulz's claim should have been viewed skeptically. Detective McHugh thought it was “strange” that Ms. Schulz had waited several hours before reporting the incident to the police. McHugh Dep. 83:2-15. Moreover, even Detective McHugh thought it normally would strain credulity for an elderly woman to be accused of such a violent confrontation with a gun. See Email from Detective McHugh to Susan Wittrock, June 24, 2015 (stating that “the suspect is pushing 80 years old . . . if it wasn't on video, not sure I would've believed it myself”), Defs. Mem. Ex. 11, ECF No. 68-13. Detective McHugh began his investigation in earnest on May 15, 2015.

         First, on May 15, Detective McHugh interviewed Ms. Schulz. Dep. Diane Schulz (“Schulz Dep.”) 93:9-95:5, Defs. Mem. Ex. 4, ECF No. 68-6; McHugh Dep. 87:5-8; Schulz's Statement ¶ 11. Ms. Schulz repeated the same allegations to Detective McHugh that she had made to the 911 operator and Officer Patel-Mrs. Sherrod threatened Ms. Schulz with a gun, and then reached into the driver's seat area of her car, pulled out a black gun, and pointed it at Ms. Schulz. SUMF ¶¶ 72-77. Again, Ms. Schulz could not identify the gun's specific make, but she did tell Detective McHugh that it was “semi-automatic” and similar to the gun owned by one of her family members, who is a police officer. SUMF ¶¶ 78-79.

         The day after he interviewed Ms. Schulz, Detective McHugh emailed Ms. Schulz his police report classifying the incident as an assault with a dangerous weapon, including Ms. Schulz's accusation that Mrs. Sherrod “brandished a large black handgun.” Pls. Opp'n. Ex. 21, ECF No. 76-24. Ms. Schulz responded to Detective McHugh's email and clarified a minor detail in the report, but despite her apparent reservations she did not express that Mrs. Sherrod may not have wielded a gun. Pls. Opp'n Ex. 27, ECF No. 76-30. Notably, the record contains no evidence indicating that Ms. Schulz ever indicated to MPD-during her 911 call, her interview with Officer Patel, or her interview with Detective McHugh-that she was not sure whether Mrs. Sherrod had brandished a gun.

         After interviewing Ms. Schulz, despite his apparent skepticism and before interviewing Mrs. Sherrod and seeking evidence and witnesses at the flower shop, Detective McHugh issued a “bulletin” over the Washington Area Law Enforcement System (“WALES”) and the National Crime Information System (“NCIS”). SUMF ¶ 85; McHugh Dep. 125:17-22; Pls. Opp'n Ex. 19, ECF No. 76-22. The bulletin, captioned “Felony Vehicle, ADW gun, ” notified all local law enforcement agencies that the Sherrods' car was involved in a possible assault with a deadly weapon and that it should be stopped so that Detective McHugh could question its occupants. McHugh Dep. 127:16-128:14; SUMF ¶ 85; Defs. Mem. Ex. 10, ECF No. 68-12; Pls. Opp'n Ex. 19 & Ex. 20, ECF No. 76-23.

         Finally, after interviewing Ms. Schulz and issuing the bulletin, Detective McHugh went to the flower shop to interview potential witnesses. SUMF ¶ 81. The lone employee Detective McHugh interviewed heard the altercation between Ms. Schulz and the Sherrods but did not see it, so he could not corroborate Ms. Schulz's allegations. SUMF ¶ 82. However, Detective McHugh obtained a video from the store's security camera (hereafter, the “security video”) that captured the altercation, albeit without sound. SUMF ¶ 83. The security video shows that another employee of the flower shop-Kenneth Wright-witnessed at least some of the altercation, but Detective McHugh did not interview Mr. Wright. McHugh Dep. 119:17-120:14; Decl. of Kenneth Wright ¶ 4-6, ECF No. 76-16. Detective McHugh also showed the video to his supervisor, Lieutenant Richard Brady. SUMF ¶ 84, 98; Decl. of Richard Brady ¶ 5, ECF No. 68-15.

         As discussed below, the parties dispute the conclusions to be drawn from the security video, but they concede that the video is authentic and that it captures the altercation. See generally Partial Consent Mot. Def. Diane Lee Schulz Summ. J. Dismissal (“Schulz Mem.”), ECF No. 66; Defs. Mem., ECF No. 68; Pls. Opp'n, ECF No. 76. The parties also agree that no gun is visible on the video. McHugh Dep. 157:19-20; Pls. Statement Mat. Facts Genuine Dispute (“Pls. Statement”) ¶ 97, ECF No. 76-1. Despite this admission Detective McHugh believes that the video corroborates Ms. Schulz's allegations. McHugh Dep. 158:7-160:2. The Sherrods, on the other hand, believe it exonerates them. Pls. Statement ¶ 98. But, from this point forward in the investigation there is no dispute that all evidence developed was exculpatory of Mrs. Sherrod.

         Detective McHugh took several investigatory steps after viewing the security video, many of which prompted the Sherrods' claims. First, approximately one week after viewing the video, Mrs. Sherrod and Detective McHugh spoke over the telephone about the incident, and Mrs. Sherrod told Detective McHugh that she did not own a gun and did not point a gun at Ms. Schulz. SUMF ¶¶ 90, 93-94; McHugh Dep. 154:13-15 (agreeing that Mrs. Sherrod “vehemently denied” brandishing a gun at Ms. Schulz). The parties dispute whether Mrs. Sherrod independently brought up the possible existence of a gun, without Detective McHugh prompting her. SUMF ¶¶ 91-95; Pls. Statement ¶ 91. Next, Detective McHugh contacted the Prince George's County Police Department and the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and confirmed that the Sherrods had not registered a firearm with either agency. SUMF ¶¶ 86-87; Defs. Mem. Ex. 11; McHugh Dep. 145:19-146:13. Then, Detective McHugh met with the Assistant United States Attorneys (“AUSAs”) assigned to the case, showed them the security video, and recounted the statements of Ms. Schulz and Mrs. Sherrod. McHugh Dep. 158:2-160:7. The AUSAs apparently did not believe that the evidence presented was sufficient to arrest Mrs. Sherrod at this stage of the investigation, even before the investigation produced additional exculpatory facts. Id. 160:3-7; Email from Detective McHugh to Susan Wittrock, June 24, 2015 (stating that “the video isn't clear enough for the [AUSAs] to sign a warrant since we can't say definitively what is in suspect's hand”), Defs. Mem. Ex. 11. At this point, Detective McHugh determined that the proper course of action was to continue the investigation and search the Sherrods' car and home. McHugh Dep. 158:11-19, 160:8-19.

         C. The Car Search

         On June 24, Detective McHugh's bulletin prompted two United States Capitol Police patrol cars to pull the Sherrods over as they drove near the Capitol. SUMF ¶ 101; Pls. Statement ¶ 103. After Mrs. Sherrod pulled her car to the curb, three police officers approached and two of them pointed shotguns at the Sherrods. Pls. Statement ¶ 103. The Sherrods claim that the officers' actions terrified them to the point of tears. Id.

         Detective McHugh arrived on the scene ten to forty minutes later and obtained Mrs. Sherrod's consent to search the car. SUMF ¶¶ 102-104; Pls. Statement ¶ 102-104. The Sherrods assert that Detective McHugh told them he would impound their car if Mrs. Sherrod did not consent, an assertion that Detective McHugh denies. Pls. Statement ¶ 104; McHugh Dep. 181:12-14. Detective McHugh searched the car for approximately one hour but did not find a gun or any other contraband. SUMF ¶ 105; McHugh Dep. at 183:6-13; Vashti Sherrod Dep. 152:1-155:9, Pls. Opp'n Ex. 7, ECF No. 76-10. After the search Detective McHugh requested that Mrs. Sherrod accompany him to the police station for further questioning, but Mrs. Sherrod refused. Vashti Sherrod Dep. 155:15-22.

         D. The Home Search

         In addition to the car search, Detective McHugh sought to search the Sherrods' home. Because the Sherrods live in Maryland, Detective McHugh coordinated the search with the Prince George's County Police Department. SUMF ¶ 99. Detective McHugh supplied information on the case, including a description of the security video, to a Bowie, Maryland detective who used the information to complete a search warrant affidavit. SUMF ¶ 100; Pls. Statement ¶ 100. The affidavit stated in part that:

The [security] video corroborates the victim's series of events. The video shows Vashti Sherrod bend down at the driver's seat of her Mercedes and emerge with her right arm raised as if pointing something at the victim. Sherrod walks toward the victim, who then abruptly reenters her vehicle and leaves the scene. The video quality is not clear enough to see what Sherrod has in her hand, but the victim described it as a black pistol.

Pls. Opp'n Ex. 23 at 3, ECF No. 76-26. A magistrate judge approved the warrant based on that information. Defs. Mem. Ex. 14, ECF No. 68-16. On Wednesday, July 7 at approximately 9:00 p.m., Detective McHugh and a team of Maryland police officers conducted a search of Plaintiffs' home. SUMF ¶¶105-106; Decl. of David Edelstein (“Edelstein Decl.”) ¶ 5, Defs. Mem. Ex. 16, ECF No. 68-18.

         According to District Defendants, the team knocked on the front and back doors, announced themselves multiple times by shouting into the house, turned their police lights on, and attempted to call the Sherrods from both Detective McHugh's cell phone and the Prince George's County 911 call center. SUMF ¶¶ 108-114. Detective McHugh saw someone- allegedly the Sherrods-look through an upstairs bedroom window at the police, and he could see that a television was on in that room. SUMF ¶ 110; McHugh Dep. 207:15-18. Finally, after approximately thirty minutes, the officer in charge ordered the team to force entry into the Sherrods' home-to “breach” the front door. SUMF ¶ 114; McHugh Dep. 210:7-211:21. Detective McHugh claims that he asked the Prince George's County officers to use less force than is normally used when serving a search warrant for a possible weapon. McHugh Dep. 208:20-209:5. Detective McHugh did not participate in the initial breach, and only entered the Sherrods' house after it had been secured by the team. SUMF ¶ 115.

         According to the Sherrods, on the night of the search they were startled by a ringing doorbell, pounding on their back door, and flashing lights visible through their windows.[1] Pls. Statement ¶ 16. The Sherrods thought that they might have been experiencing a home invasion, and they feared for their safety. Id. This fear was exacerbated by Mr. Sherrod's blindness; he could not see who was in his home. Id. After the police breached the door, they briefly handcuffed Mr. Sherrod and told Mrs. Sherrod to put her hands over her head. Id. Detective McHugh told the Sherrods that they could not leave the home until he permitted them to, then he personally searched their home, allegedly ransacking their property in the process. Id. Detective McHugh did not find any guns or ammunition in the house. Id.

         E. The Arrest

         Despite not finding any evidence that the Sherrods owned or had access to a gun, on July 10 Detective McHugh secured an arrest warrant for Mrs. Sherrod. SUMF ¶ 116; Pls. Statement ¶ 116; McHugh Dep. 231:18-21; Defs. Mem. Ex. 17, ECF No. 68-19. Detective McHugh's affidavit in support of that warrant described the security video in identical terms to the affidavit in support of the search warrant. Defs. Mem. Ex. 17.

         On July 21, Mrs. Sherrod surrendered herself to MPD and was processed, handcuffed, jailed, and ultimately released that day on her personal recognizance pending a preliminary hearing before a District of Columbia Superior Court magistrate judge.[2] Resp. of Vashti Sherrod to the Interrogs. Propounded by Ms. Schulz (“Vashti Sherrod ROG”) at 20, Pls. Opp'n Ex. 39, ECF No. 76-42; SUMF ¶ 117; McHugh Dep. 240:4-6; Defs. Mem. Ex. 18, ECF No. 68-20. A District of Columbia Superior Court magistrate judge conducted the preliminary hearing, heard testimony from Detective McHugh, and found that the case should be submitted to a grand jury for a probable cause determination. SUMF ¶ 118-19; McHugh Dep. 240:22-242:9.

         The government's case against Mrs. Sherrod unraveled at the grand jury stage. Before testifying, Ms. Schulz met with Detective McHugh and the AUSA handling the case, and Ms. Schulz had difficulty recalling the gun that Mrs. Sherrod allegedly threatened her with. SUMF ¶ 120; Pls. Statement ¶ 123; Schulz's Statement ¶ 12. She also revealed that she was bipolar and taking medication to treat that condition, factors that may have influenced her memory and mental state. SUMF ¶ 121-22; Schulz's Statement ¶ 2. The grand jury ultimately did not issue an indictment. SUMF ¶ 124-125; Schulz's Statement ¶ 14. After the case was dropped, the Sherrods brought this action.

         F. Procedural History

         The Sherrods have challenged Detective McHugh's investigation on multiple federal law and common law grounds. See generally Second Amended Compl. (“SAC”), ECF No. 41. They claim that the car and home searches, and Mrs. Sherrods' arrest, were not supported by probable cause, leading to several constitutional and common law violations. Id. They also claim that Detective McHugh negligently failed to follow proper police practices, and that he intentionally or negligently inflicted emotional distress on the Sherrods. Id. They claim that the District of Columbia is vicariously liable for certain of Detective McHugh's violations. Id. Finally, they claim that Ms. Schulz is culpable for certain of their injuries because she negligently or intentionally filed a false police report, prompting Detective McHugh's investigation. Id.

         Having failed to obtain partial dismissal of the Sherrods' claims, Sherrod v. McHugh, No. 16-0816, 2017 WL 627377 (D.D.C. Feb. 15, 2017), District Defendants and Ms. Schulz now seek summary judgment. See generally Schulz Mem.; Defs. Mem. As discussed below, the Court grants District Defendants' motion in part, and it denies Ms. Schulz's motion in full.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Summary Judgment

         A court may grant summary judgment when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A “material” fact is one capable of affecting the substantive outcome of the litigation. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is “genuine” if there is enough evidence for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-movant. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007).

         The principal purpose of summary judgment is to streamline litigation by disposing of factually unsupported claims or defenses and determining whether there is a genuine need for trial. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). The movant bears the initial burden of identifying portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. In response, the non- movant must point to specific facts in the record that reveal a genuine issue that is suitable for trial. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. In considering a motion for summary judgment, a court must “eschew making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence[, ]” Czekalski v. Peters, 475 F.3d 360, 363 (D.C. Cir. 2007), and all underlying facts and inferences must be analyzed in the light most favorable to the non-movant, see Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. Nevertheless, conclusory assertions offered without any evidentiary support do not establish a genuine issue for trial. See Greene v. Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675 (D.C. Cir. 1999).

         B. 42 U.S.C. § 1983

         The Sherrods have asserted multiple claims against Detective McHugh under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 provides a cause of action against:

[e]very person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.

42 U.S.C. § 1983. A plaintiff bringing a § 1983 claim “must allege both (1) that he was deprived of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States; and (2) that the defendant acted ‘under color of' the law of a state, territory or the District of Columbia.” Hoai v. Vo, 935 F.2d 308, 312 (D.C. Cir. 1991).

         Section 1983 claims are properly brought against government actors in their personal capacity. See Jones v. Horne, 634 F.3d 588, 602 (D.C. Cir. 2011). Thus, to maintain a § 1983 suit, “a plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has violated the Constitution.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 676 (2009). “Government officials may not be held liable for the unconstitutional conduct of their subordinates under a theory of respondeat superior, ” and “vicarious liability is inapplicable.” Id.

         C. Qualified Immunity

         District Defendants argue that Detective McHugh is entitled to qualified immunity from the Sherrods' claims that he violated their constitutional rights. Defs. Mem. at 25-38; District Defs. Reply at 7-20, ECF No. 81. “Qualified immunity shields federal and state officials from money damages unless a plaintiff pleads facts showing (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was ‘clearly established' at the time of the challenged conduct.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 735 (2011) (citing Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). For a right to be “clearly established, ” at the time of the officer's conduct, “existing law must have placed the constitutionality of the officer's conduct ‘beyond debate.'” District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S.Ct. 577, 589 (2018) (quoting Aschroft, 563 U.S. at 741). The legal principle to be applied must be “dictated by ‘controlling authority' or ‘a robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority, ” that “clearly prohibit the officer's conduct in the particular circumstances before him.” Id. at 589-90 (quoting Ashcroft, 563 U.S. at 741-42).

         Trial courts have discretion to decide which qualified immunity prong to address first. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009); see Rasul v. Myers, 563 F.3d 527, 530 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (noting that ”lower federal courts have the discretion to decide only the more narrow ‘clearly established' issue ‘in light of the circumstances of the particular case at hand.'” (quoting Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236)). The defendant bears the burden of pleading and proving the defense of qualified immunity. Harlow, 457 U.S. at 815.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         District Defendants and Ms. Schulz seek summary judgment on nearly all of the Sherrods' constitutional and common law claims. Because the existence or lack of probable cause for Detective McHugh to act is material to many of the Sherrods' claims and the Defendants' arguments, the Court will address probable cause first, then the Sherrods' claims against District Defendants, and finally the Sherrods' claims against Ms. Schulz. For the reasons explained below, the Court grants District Defendants' motion in part, and it denies Ms. Schulz's motion in full.

         A. Probable Cause

         As noted, most of the Sherrods' claims turn on whether Detective McHugh had probable cause to conduct various searches and seizures during his investigation. A police officer has probable cause to conduct a search if “the facts available to [him] would warrant a [person] of reasonable caution in the belief that contraband or evidence of a crime is present.” Florida v. Harris, 568 U.S. 237, 243 (2013) (quoting Texas v. Brown, 460 U.S. 730, 742 (1983) (plurality opinion)); see also Safford Unified School Dist. # 1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364, 370-371 (2009). Similarly, an officer has probable cause to arrest a suspect if, “at the moment the arrest [i]s made . . . the facts and circumstances within [the officer's] knowledge and of which [the officer] had reasonably trustworthy information [a]re sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing' that the suspect has committed or is committing a crime.” Smith v. United States, 843 F.3d 509, 515 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing Wesby v. District of Columbia, 765 F.3d 13, 19 (D.C. Cir. 2014), rev'd on other grounds, 138 S.Ct. 577 (2018)).

         The Supreme Court has emphasized that probable cause is “a fluid concept-turning on the assessment of probabilities in particular factual contexts-not readily, or even usefully, reduced to a neat set of legal rules.” Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 232 (1983). Therefore, in evaluating whether an officer has met this practical and commonsensical standard, a court must look to the totality of the circumstances. See Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 371 (2003); Gates, 462 U.S. at 243-46. In other words, if Detective McHugh possessed sufficient information to support a reasonable belief that Mrs. Sherrod threatened Ms. Schulz with a gun during their dispute, there was probable cause for him to take further investigative steps and, eventually, to arrest Mrs. Sherrod. Considering these principles and the record, at this stage the Court cannot conclude that Detective McHugh's actions were supported by probable cause at any point during the investigation.

         As an initial matter, the parties dispute whether the existence of probable cause is a question of fact to be determined by a jury at trial, or a question of law that the Court may resolve at the summary judgment stage. Both sides are correct, because “[t]he existence of probable cause is a mixed question of law and fact.” Pitt v. District of Columbia, 491 F.3d 494, 502 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (quoting Smith v. Tucker, 304 A.2d 303, 306 (D.C. 1973)); see also Cousins v. Hathaway, No. 12-1058, 2014 WL 4050170, at *6 (D.D.C. Aug. 15, 2014) (citations omitted). District Defendants correctly assert that “[w]here the facts are not in dispute[, ] the question of probable cause is one of law to be decided by the court.” Jackson v. District of Columbia, 541 F.Supp.2d 334, 341 (D.D.C. 2008) (quoting Dent v. May Dept. Stores Co., 459 A.2d 1042, 1044 (D.C. 1982)); see also Smith v. United States, 843 F.3d at 515 (affirming the district court's grant of summary judgment on the issue of probable cause because a video indisputably supported the defendant officer's contention that the plaintiff nearly struck the officer with a vehicle). However, the existence of the facts underlying a probable cause determination is a question for the jury. See Bolger v. District of Columbia, 608 F.Supp.2d 10, 21 (D.D.C. 2009) (“This factual dispute, which goes to the heart of the central element of the [offense at issue], makes it impossible to evaluate the totality of the circumstances at the time of the arrests . . . and therefore the [c]ourt cannot determine as a matter of law whether [the defendant officers] had probable cause to arrest [the] plaintiffs.”); Dingle v. District of Columbia, 571 F.Supp.2d 87, 96 (D.D.C. 2008) (denying summary judgment where the plaintiff and the defendant officer provided differing accounts of an arrest). Therefore, “[o]nly where the facts are undisputed or clearly established does probable cause become a question of law for the court.” Amobi v. District of Columbia, 755 F.3d 980, 990 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (citing Bradshaw v. District of Columbia, 43 A.3d 318, 324 (D.C. 2012)).

         District Defendants assert that “information from a single eyewitness can be sufficient to establish probable cause.” Defs. Mem. at 22 (citing Page v. Mancuso, 999 F.Supp.2d 269, 280 (D.D.C. 2013)). They correctly note that it is undisputed that Ms. Schulz unequivocally told a 911 operator, Officer Patel, and Detective McHugh that Mrs. Sherrod had threatened her with a gun during their traffic dispute. See generally Schulz Dep.; see also Patel Dep. 23:10-25:16; McHugh Dep. 87:6-13, 92:18-93:4; Pls. Opp'n at 5, 10, 14. They therefore argue that “Ms. Schulz's statements to law enforcement on May 14 and 15, 2015 alone established probable cause to search and seize Plaintiffs.” Defs. Mem. at 23. That argument, however, fails to account for the balance of information in Detective McHugh's possession at the time of the challenged searches and seizures.

         In Pendergast v. United States, a case cited by District Defendants, the D.C. Circuit established the circumstances under which a victim's statement alone may provide probable cause for a search or arrest. The Circuit held that “probable cause is established where (a) the victim of an offense (1) communicates to the arresting officer information affording credible ground for believing that the offense was committed and (2) unequivocally identifies the accused as the perpetrator, and (b) materially impeaching circumstances are lacking.” 416 F.2d 776, 785 (D.C. Cir. 1969); see Garay v. Liriano, 943 F.Supp.2d 1, 18-19 (D.D.C. 2013) (holding that an officer had probable cause to make an arrest based on an eyewitness statement when the officers “had no reason to believe that the eyewitness was lying or providing them with false information”). Other circuits have similarly held that an “eyewitness identification will constitute sufficient probable cause ‘unless, at the time of the arrest, there is an apparent reason for the officer to believe that the eyewitness was lying, did not accurately describe what he had seen, or was in some fashion mistaken regarding his recollection of the confrontation.'” Ahlers v. Schebil, 188 F.3d 365, 370 (6th Cir. 1999) (quoting United States v. Amerson, No. 93-6360, 1994 WL 589626, at *2-3 (6th Cir.1994) (unpublished table decision)); see also Curley v. Village of Suffern, 268 F.3d 65, 70 (2d Cir. 2001) (“When information is received from a putative victim or an eyewitness, probable cause exists, unless the circumstances raise doubt as to the person's veracity”).

         Defendants are therefore correct that in certain circumstances, Ms. Schulz's statements to the 911 operator, Officer Patel, and Detective McHugh would, on their own, provide probable cause for Detective McHugh to take further investigatory steps. Here, however, Detective McHugh had “reason to believe that [Ms. Schulz] was lying” or at least mistaken. Garay, 943 F.Supp.2d at 18-19. First, and as discussed in greater detail below, the security video provided ample ground for Detective McHugh to question Ms. Schulz's accusation. Pls. Opp'n at 16. Second, Ms. Schulz waited several hours before reporting the alleged incident; “strange” behavior for someone who had been threatened with a gun. McHugh Dep. 83:2-15. Third, Mrs. Sherrod-an elderly woman-did not fit the profile of the typical perpetrator of an assault with a deadly weapon. See Defs. Mem. Ex. 11. Accordingly, District Defendants' reliance on Mancuso is misguided because the Sherrods, unlike the Mancuso plaintiff, raised “genuine issues regarding the circumstances that [Detective McHugh] confronted” when arresting Mrs. Sherrod, and in Mancuso there was no indication that the officer possessed any evidence contradicting the eyewitness statements supporting probable cause, much less video evidence. Mancuso, 999 F.Supp.2d at 279-80.

         Even setting aside the other factors giving Detective McHugh reason for skepticism, there is a material question regarding whether a reasonable officer would have concluded that the security video tended to corroborate or contradict Ms. Schulz's allegations. District Defendants argue that Ms. Schulz's allegations “were supported by the surveillance video, ” and therefore that “it was reasonable for Detective McHugh and his supervisors to believe that Mrs. Sherrod had committed a crime and that the handgun would be found in Plaintiffs' vehicle or their home.” Defs. Mem at 25. The Sherrods, on the other hand, contend that “the video was sufficiently clear to enable an objective and reasonable viewer to see that when Mrs. Sherrod raised her right arm, she was merely pointing her hand and was certainly not pointing a gun.” Pls. Opp'n at 31-32 (citing Hayden Decl. Ex. 1 at 4). Based on this interpretation, the Sherrods conclude that “the video contradicted the allegations of the only complaining witness, ” and therefore that Detective McHugh could not have had probable cause to believe that Mrs. Sherrod had committed an assault with a deadly weapon. Id.

         Having reviewed the video, the Court cannot conclude that the District Defendants' interpretation-the video corroborates Ms. Schulz's accusations-is the only defensible interpretation. It is true that a court need not credit the non-movant's interpretation of a video where the “videotape quite clearly contradicts the version of the story told by [the non-movant].” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378-80 (2007) (“When 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.”). Here, however, the video is far too pixelated for the Court to conclude that it shows Mrs. Sherrod pointing a gun at Ms. Schulz, which would directly corroborate Ms. Schulz's allegation. The more difficult question is whether, considering the sequence of events evident from the video, the actions and body language of the Sherrods and Ms. Schulz, and the positioning of Mrs. Sherrod's hands, the security video supports Ms. Schulz's allegation or contradicts it. The jury, not this Court, is the proper mechanism by which that question should be resolved. See Westfahl v. District of Columbia, No. 11-2210, 2015 WL 6746479, at *6 (D.D.C. Nov. 4, 2015) (refusing to adopt the defendant officers' interpretation of an MPD video where “the MPD video does not compel only one reasonable set of inferences at odds with the jury's verdict”).[3]

         Because there is a material dispute of fact regarding whether, after first watching the security video, Detective McHugh had probable cause to suspect that Mrs. Sherrod had committed an assault with a deadly weapon, the Court cannot conclude that Detective McHugh had probable cause at any point in the investigation. District Defendants do not argue that Detective McHugh discovered any evidence-aside from the video-supporting Ms. Schulz's allegation. Nor could they, because at each point in the investigation it became less likely that Mrs. Sherrod had committed a crime. Mrs. Sherrod denied threatening Ms. Schulz with a gun, or even owning one. SUMF ¶ 94. Detective McHugh determined that there were no guns registered to the Sherrods. Id. ¶ 87. The AUSAs assigned to the case declined to authorize Mrs. Sherrod's arrest before Detective McHugh searched the Sherrods' car and home. Email from Detective McHugh to Susan Wittrock, June 24, 2015 (stating that “the video isn't clear enough for the [AUSAs] to sign a warrant since we can't say definitively what is in suspect's hand”), Defs. Mem. Ex. 11. The car search did not bear fruit. SUMF ¶ 105. Nor did the home search. Pls. Statement ¶ 16. Therefore, if Detective McHugh did not have probable cause at the outset of his investigation, he never had probable cause.

         Having decided that issue, the Court will consider the Defendants' summary judgment arguments. The Sherrods' claims arise from three distinct events: (1) the stop and search of the Sherrods' car; (2) the search of the Sherrods' home; and (3) Mrs. Sherrod's arrest. Certain of their claims relate to specific events, while others cover the investigation as a whole. The Court will organize its analysis accordingly, focusing first on the Sherrods' claims against District Defendants, followed by the Sherrods' claims against Ms. Schulz.

         B. Constitutional Claims

         The Sherrods claim that District Defendants violated their constitutional rights at several different points, and in several different ways, during Detective McHugh's investigation. The Court will first address the validity of the warrants to search the Sherrods' home and arrest Mrs. Sherrod, as those warrants are material to many of the Sherrods' constitutional claims and District Defendants' summary judgment arguments. The Court will then address the constitutional claims, which are captured rather vaguely in Counts I, II, and III of the complaint. As noted above, where, as here, a defendant official claims qualified immunity, the Court must determine (1) whether the official “violated a statutory or constitutional right, ” and (2) whether “the right was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.” Ashcroft, 563 U.S. at 735. Having made this determination, the Court concludes that only the Sherrods' constitutional claims challenging the searches of the Sherrods' home and car and the arrest of Mrs. Sherrod survive summary judgment.

         1. Reliance on the Search and Arrest Warrants

         While Detective McHugh may not have had probable cause to independently search the Sherrods' car and home and to arrest Mrs. Sherrod, it is undisputed that the Sherrods' home search and Mrs. Sherrod's arrest were authorized by warrants signed by judges. The Court must determine the significance of those warrants because, as District Defendants correctly note, “[w]hen police officers obtain a warrant before executing an arrest, they are ordinarily entitled to rely on the issuing judge's determination that probable cause exists.” Defs. Mem. at 32-33 (citing United States v. Spencer, 530 F.3d 1003, 1006-07 (D.C. Cir. 2008)). However, as explained below, Detective McHugh may not rely on the warrants to immunize his allegedly unconstitutional actions because a reasonable jury may conclude that Detective McHugh himself procured those warrants through materially false statements.

         The Fourth Amendment guarantees “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. It prohibits “searches and seizures . . . without a [valid] warrant.” Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551, 558-59, 564 (2004); see, e.g., Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006). A warrant is valid, in turn, only if it is based “upon probable cause, supported by [o]ath or affirmation, ” and only if it “particularly describ[es] the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” U.S. Const., amend. IV. “Because a search warrant provides the detached scrutiny of a neutral magistrate, ” the Supreme Court has “expressed a strong preference for warrants and [has] declared that in a doubtful or marginal case a search under a warrant may be sustainable where without one it would fail.” United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 913-14 (1984) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         Under a rule established by the Supreme Court in Franks v. Delaware, deference to a warrant “gives way when the affidavit upon which the magistrate relied ‘contain[ed] a deliberately or recklessly false statement.'” Lane v. District of Columbia, 211 F.Supp.3d 150, 173 (D.D.C. 2016) (quoting Franks, 438 U.S. 154, 165 (1978)). A finding of deliberate or reckless falsity does not, however, end the inquiry. The Court must also consider whether the false statements were “material.” Id. at 173. “[A]llegedly false information in an affidavit is material only if, when it is ‘set to one side, the affidavit's remaining content is insufficient to establish probable cause.'” United States v. Ali, 870 F.Supp.2d 10, 27 (D.D.C. 2012) (quoting Franks, 438 U.S. at 156). Similarly, “omitted facts are only material if ‘their inclusion in the affidavit would defeat probable cause.'” Id. (quoting United States v. Spencer, 530 F.3d 1003, 1007 (D.C. Cir. 2008)).

         Applying this standard, the Sherrods have raised a genuine dispute regarding whether the warrants at issue here were valid. The affidavits drafted by Detective McHugh in support of both warrants state that the security video “corroborates the victim's series of events.” Defs. Mem. Ex. 14 at 3, ECF No. 68-16; Defs. Mem Ex. 17 at 2, ECF No. 68-19. As discussed above, a reasonable jury could, if it determines that the security video clearly contradicts Ms. Schulz's accusation, conclude that Detective McHugh acted with at least recklessness in submitting affidavits stating that the video corroborated Ms. Schulz's accusation. Moreover, this recklessness would be material because in the absence of Detective McHugh's characterization of the security video and with the addition of the Sherrods' characterization, the affidavits would no longer have supported a finding of probable cause.[4] Therefore, the warrants would not be entitled to this Court's deference. Franks, 438 U.S. at 165. Moreover, regardless of whether other officers could rely in good faith on the warrants, “because [Detective McHugh] himself prepared the invalid warrant[s], he may not argue that he reasonably relied on the [judge's] assurance that the warrant[s]” established probable cause. Groh, 540 U.S. at 564; see S.H. v. District of Columbia, 270 F.Supp.3d 260, 286 (D.D.C. 2017); Pitts v. District of Columbia, 177 F.Supp.3d 347, 364 (D.D.C. 2016); Davis v. District of Columbia, 156 F.Supp.3d 194, 202-03 (D.D.C. 2016); Lane, 211 F.Supp.3d at 178. At this stage, the warrants therefore cannot immunize Detective McHugh's actions.

         2. Claims Related to the Car Search

         The Court first addresses the Sherrods' claims arising from the stop and search of their car on June 24, 2015. SUMF ¶ 101. The Sherrods claim that their rights were violated both during the initial car stop by the Capitol Police and during Detective McHugh's subsequent search of their car. The Court concludes that (1) the initial stop did not violate the Sherrods' clearly established constitutional rights; but (2) there is a dispute of fact regarding whether the search did. Accordingly, Detective McHugh is entitled to qualified immunity from claims arising from the stop but not the search.[5]

         a. Initial Stop

         The Sherrods claim that Detective McHugh's “false” felony vehicle bulletin caused them to be unconstitutionally seized by the District of Columbia Capitol Police without probable cause. SAC ¶¶ 27, 60, 71. District Defendants counter that the bulletin and the resulting stop needed only to be supported by reasonable suspicion, rather than probable cause, and that Detective McHugh “possessed probable cause, much more than reasonable suspicion.” Defs. Mem. at 27. They argue that Detective McHugh is therefore entitled to qualified immunity on this claim because his actions did not violate the Sherrods' constitutional rights. Id. at 27-28. The Court agrees.

         As an initial matter, the precise contours of the Sherrods' claims with respect to the car stop are unclear. They admit that they are not asserting claims against the Capitol Police. Pls. Opp'n at 43. However, they appear to claim that the Capitol Police violated their constitutional rights by stopping their car and detaining them for “approximately 20-40 minutes” while they awaited Detective McHugh's arrival. Id. at 44. According to the Sherrods, Detective McHugh caused this unconstitutional detention because he “lacked probable cause to post the felony lookout for the Sherrods' vehicle.” Id. at 43. This claim must fail because, even drawing all factual inferences in favor of the Sherrods, they have not demonstrated that Detective McHugh or the Capitol Police violated their constitutional rights during the initial car stop.

         A police officer may “stop and briefly detain a person for investigative purposes if the officer has a reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that criminal activity ‘may be afoot,' even if the officer lacks probable cause.” United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7 (1989) (citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30 (1968)). Reasonable suspicion exists if “the totality of the circumstances” presents “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.” United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417-18 (1981). “This is not a particularly high bar: ‘a Terry stop requires only a minimal level of objective justification.'” United States v. Abdus-Price, 518 F.3d 926, 929 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (quoting United States v. Edmonds, 240 F.3d 55, 59 (D.C. Cir. 2001)).

         Detective McHugh issued the bulletin, directing police to stop the Sherrods' car, based on Ms. Schulz's unequivocal allegations-to a 911 operator, Officer Patel, and Detective McHugh-that Mrs. Sherrod threatened her with a gun. The record indicates that Detective McHugh issued the bulletin before viewing the allegedly exculpatory security video. See McHugh Dep. 125:17-22 (stating that he issued the bulletin at 1:15 p.m. on May 15); id. 116:21- 22 (stating that he visited the flower shop at 2:45 p.m. on May 15). And even if Detective McHugh had issued the bulletin after viewing the security video, the Sherrods have not argued that Detective McHugh lacked reasonable suspicion to take further investigatory steps. See generally SAC, Pls. Opp'n. Under the totality of the circumstances, considering Ms. Schulz's allegations and ...


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