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Whittaker v. Munoz

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 4, 2019

CHRISTIAN MUNOZ, in his Individual capacity, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Makhi Whittaker brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his constitutional rights when defendant Christian Munoz, an MPD Officer, allegedly arrested Mr. Whittaker without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Mr. Whittaker also alleges that Officer Munoz violated his First Amendment rights by arresting him in retaliation for his speech. Officer Munoz moves for summary judgment arguing that Mr. Whittaker fails to show a violation of the Constitution, and, alternatively, even if there was a violation, qualified immunity precludes this lawsuit. Upon consideration of Officer Munoz's motion for summary judgment, the response and reply thereto, the applicable law, and the entire record, the Court will GRANT Officer Munoz's motion for summary judgment.

         I. Background[1]

         Mr. Makhi Whittaker, a high school student, was arrested after boarding a metrobus on the afternoon of March 22, 2017. See Statement of Undisputed Facts (“SOF”), ECF No. 19-1 at 23.[2]Mr. Whittaker was not in school that day because he had a doctor's appointment. Id. Mr. Whittaker and his girlfriend, Sheila Shelton, began the day by going to Ms. Shelton's home to visit her family. Id. They left Ms. Shelton's home in the afternoon, at which point they had plans to go to the Northeast section of the city so Mr. Whittaker could sell a videogame at a local store. Id. at 23-24.

         To get to Northeast, Mr. Whittaker and Ms. Shelton attempted to catch a metrobus at the Minnesota Avenue Metro Station. Id. at 24. Once the metrobus arrived, Mr. Whittaker and Ms. Shelton entered the metrobus along with other schoolchildren, some in uniform and some not. Id. Mr. Whittaker was not in uniform that day because he did not go to school. Id. Mr. Whittaker and Ms. Shelton did not pay the bus fare and did not show the bus driver a “D.C. One Card” which allows students in the District of Columbia to ride the metrobus for free if they are going to or from school, or a school-related activity. Id. Mr. Whittaker was waived onto the bus by the driver as the driver was letting other students onto the bus.[3] Mr. Whittaker went on the bus without paying a fare, and he and Ms. Shelton boarded the bus. Id. at 25.

         Meanwhile, Officer Munoz, an MPD Officer, was patrolling the Minnesota Avenue Metro Station, an area that has had problems in the past with fare evasion. Id. at 24. He was patrolling the station when Mr. Whittaker and Ms. Shelton arrived. Id. at 24. Officer Munoz observed Mr. Whittaker enter the bus without paying the fare and without displaying a D.C. One Card. Id. at 25. Officer Munoz ordered them both to exit the metrobus and arrested Mr. Whittaker for fare evasion by placing him in handcuffs. Id. The parties disagree about what Mr. Whittaker said to Officer Munoz and when; however the parties do agree that Mr. Whittaker asked why he was being put in handcuffs and also asked Officer Munoz to explain what probable cause he had to arrest him. Id. at 26. Officer Munoz searched Mr. Whittaker incident to the arrest. Id. Mr. Whittaker was released the next day and was not charged with a crime. Compl., ECF No. 1 ¶ 46.

         Thereafter, Mr. Whittaker filed this lawsuit alleging violations of the First and Fourth Amendments and seeking compensation pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See generally Id. After a short discovery period, Officer Munoz moved for summary judgment against all claims. Def.'s Mot., ECF No. 17. Mr. Whittaker filed his opposition, ECF No. 19, and Officer Munoz has filed a reply, ECF No. 22. This motion is ripe for disposition.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, summary judgment should be granted “if 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); Waterhouse v. District of Columbia, 298 F.3d 989, 991 (D.C. Cir. 2002). The moving party must identify “those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)(internal quotation marks omitted).

         Once the moving party has met its burden, the non-moving party must come forward with specific facts that would present a genuine issue for trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). A genuine dispute exists if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Any inferences drawn on the facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587. A party asserting that a fact is “genuinely disputed” must support that assertion by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record” or “showing that the materials cited [by the opposing party] do not establish the absence ... of a genuine dispute.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). “If a party ... fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact, ” the court may “consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); see also Local Civ. R. 7(h).

         III. Analysis

         Mr. Whittaker has sued Officer Munoz under Section 1983 alleging several violations of his constitutional rights. See generally, Compl., ECF No. 1. Specifically, he alleges violations of the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure[4]; and the First Amendment's prohibition against retaliatory arrest. Id. at 7-10. Officer Munoz alleges that both claims fail because he had probable cause to arrest Mr. Whittaker. See generally Def.'s Mot., ECF No. 17.

         Mr. Whittaker does not dispute the fact that his claims fail if Officer Munoz had probable cause to arrest him; nor can he. An arrest supported by probable cause does not violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. See Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318, 354 (2001)(“If an officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has committed even a very minor criminal offense in his presence, he may, without violating the Fourth Amendment, arrest the offender.”). As for the First Amendment claim, at the time of Mr. Whittaker's arrest, the Supreme Court had held that it “has never recognized a First Amendment right to be free from a retaliatory arrest that is supported by probable cause.” Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658, 664-65 (2012). The Court recently addressed this issue in Nieves v. Bartlett, in which it held that, generally, a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim fails as a matter of law when an officer has probable cause to arrest.[5] 139 S.Ct. 1715, 1726 (2019). Accordingly, if this Court finds that Officer Munoz had probable cause to arrest Mr. Whittaker, both the Fourth and First Amendment claims fail as a matter of law. The Court discusses each claim in turn.

         A. Fourth Amendment Claim: ...

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