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Mencias Avila v. Dailey

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 11, 2019

ERLIN EVER MENCIAS AVILA, Plaintiff,
v.
MATTHEW DAILEY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TANYA S. CHUTKAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Defendant Matthew Dailey has moved, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), to vacate judgment (ECF No. 97 (“Def's Vacatur Mot.”)). Defendant asks the court to vacate its original and reconsidered summary judgment decisions, in which it held, in part, that Defendant's actions violated Plaintiff Mencias Avila's Fourth Amendment rights as a matter of law. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion will be DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         On September 6, 2014, Plaintiff, a home improvement contractor, was present at the scene of a fight at a restaurant. (ECF No. 36-1 (“Pl.'s Reply 7(h)(1) Statement”) ¶¶ 1, 7.) After the altercation ended, Plaintiff and an individual named Luis, who was involved in the altercation, entered Plaintiffs work van and drove away. (Id. ¶ 15.) Defendant, who was the lead detective investigating the incident, directed a Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”) officer to seize Plaintiffs work van later that evening as potential evidence of a crime. (Id. ¶¶ 30, 39.) Pursuant to a warrant stating that Defendant had probable cause to believe the van contained evidence that would assist MPD in identifying and locating the suspect in the altercation, Defendant searched the van, which was by then impounded, on September 23, 2014. (Id. ¶¶ 55-56.) During the search, officers found and removed several items of evidentiary value from the van. (Id. ¶¶ 57, 61.) MPD retained Plaintiff's van, as well as the items removed from the van, following the search. (Id. ¶¶ 59, 92.) Plaintiff was never arrested, (id. ¶ 89), and nothing in the record indicates that MPD ever located or arrested Luis.

         MPD General Order 601.1, which describes procedures for handling seized property, states that, where seized property is classified as evidence but no arrest is made, “the member first taking the property into custody shall be responsible for obtaining a PD Form 81-C from the appropriate prosecuting attorney and delivering it to the Court Property Control Office.” (ECF No. 24-1, Ex. I (“MPD Gen. Order 601.1.”) at 26.) According to the United States Attorney's Office (“USAO”), “MPD determines all dispositions of property that they seize during any investigation, ” and the USAO “has no authority to dispose of and/or retain property seized. This authority rests solely with MPD.” (ECF No. 24-1, Ex. B (“Giovanelli Decl.”) ¶ 3.) The MPD officer “makes the decision to release the seized property” and then presents a Form 81-C to a supervisor at the USAO to sign “indicating that the USAO-DC has no objection to that release and that said property is not needed to be retained as evidence.” (Id.) The USAO makes this determination “on a case by case basis.” (Id.) Defendant does not dispute the USAO's characterization of this process but contends that “MPD does not have the authority to release property until the USAO confirms that it no longer needs it for the criminal prosecution.” (Pl.'s Reply 7(h)(1) Statement ¶ 70.)

         On March 3, 2015, Plaintiff and Defendant spoke on the phone through an interpreter. (Id. ¶ 78.) During this conversation, Defendant asked Plaintiff for information regarding Luis' identity and location, and asked Plaintiff to come to MPD's Fourth District station. (Id. ¶¶ 79- 80.) When Plaintiff arrived, he was served with a grand jury subpoena issued by the USAO at Defendant's request. (Id. ¶ 80; ECF No. 27-2, Ex. B (“Dailey Dep.”) at 96:2-97:6.) Plaintiff complied with the subpoena by appearing on March 13 and completing an application for the appointment of counsel. (Pl.'s Reply 7(h)(1) Statement ¶ 81.) However, he did not testify on that date and was never asked to return. (Id. ¶ 82.)

         Assistant U.S. Attorney (“AUSA”) Kara Traster took over the case in May 2015. (ECF No. 33-1 (“Def.'s Reply 7(h)(1) Statement”) ¶ 56.) On August 18, 2015, a paralegal for Plaintiff's counsel spoke to Traster on the phone about recovering Plaintiff's van. (ECF No. 33-2 (“Pl.'s Resp. to Interrog.”) at 12-14.) Traster “told [the paralegal] that [Plaintiff's] van was being held as evidence in a criminal proceeding” and that she would contact Defendant about the property. (Id. at 13.)

         Plaintiff's counsel contacted Defendant in November 2015 to discuss the van's return, and Defendant referred counsel to Traster. (Pl.'s Reply 7(h)(1) Statement ¶ 85.) On November 19, 2015, Traster told Defendant that the case was closed and asked that he initiate the process of releasing the van. (Id. ¶ 86.) On November 26, 2015, Defendant prepared a Form 81-C for release of Plaintiff's van and sent it to the USAO, where it was signed. (Id. ¶ 90.)

         On November 27, Defendant, indicating he “had no reason to believe that Plaintiff would return to the police station after his property was released from evidence, given Plaintiff's apparent attitude toward the investigation, ” asked the USAO to authorize an arrest warrant for Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 88.) Traster declined to do so. (Id. ¶ 89.)

         On December 10, 2015, Plaintiff filed suit, alleging, in part, that Defendant was liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures. (ECF No. 1 (“Compl.”) ¶ 1.) Almost one month after filing suit, Plaintiff learned that his van was available for release, and he retrieved it on January 13, 2006, approximately eighteen months after MPD initially seized the vehicle. (Pl.'s Reply 7(h)(1) Statement ¶¶ 94, 95.) Plaintiff then filed an amended complaint to account for the receipt of the van. (ECF No. 12 (“First Am. Compl.”).)

         At the conclusion of discovery, each party moved for summary judgment, and the court held that Defendant violated the Fourth Amendment by maintaining possession of Plaintiff's van for several months after probable cause dissipated.[2] (See ECF No. 38 (“Mem. Op.”) at 9-19.) The court reasoned that while the initial seizure of the van was lawful, the seizure became unlawful after the van was searched because Defendant lacked probable cause to continue holding the vehicle once all items of evidentiary value were removed and no alleged governmental interests justified the intrusion upon Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment interests. (Id.) Focusing on Defendant's initial responsibility for seizing the van and his necessary role in initiating the vehicle's release, the court concluded that Defendant played a sufficient causal role in the unconstitutional seizure to be liable for violating Plaintiff's constitutional rights. (Id. at 17.) The court then held Defendant was not entitled to qualified immunity, concluding that a reasonable officer would have known that prolonged seizure of an individual's work van, in the absence of probable cause, was unlawful. (Id. at 27-30.)

         Defendant then filed a motion for reconsideration (ECF No. 40), asserting that a genuine dispute of material fact precluded summary judgment on both issues. Relying on previously unaddressed evidence that Traster had informed a paralegal for Plaintiff's counsel that Plaintiff's van “was being held as evidence in a criminal proceeding, ” (Pl.'s Resp. to Interrog. at 13), the court found a material dispute of fact over whether staff in the USAO had instructed Defendant to maintain possession of the van to assist the USAO's continued investigation. (ECF No. 47 (“Recons. Order”) at 4-6.) On this basis, the court granted Defendant's motion for reconsideration as to qualified immunity. (Id.) However, it reaffirmed its previous decision to grant summary judgment for Plaintiff on the issue of Defendant's Fourth Amendment liability because it is “well established that a continued seizure becomes unconstitutional when probable cause for the seizure has dissipated.” (Id. at 1, 5-6.)

         After Plaintiff elected not to pursue his initial Fifth Amendment claim against Defendant, the parties proceeded to prepare for trial on the remaining Fourth Amendment issue- specifically, whether Defendant was entitled to qualified immunity. (ECF No. 52 (“Pl.'s Notice Regarding Issues for Trial”) at 1.) Subsequently, Defendant conceded that he would not testify that he received specific instruction from the USAO to hold the van, but would testify that the USAO informed him that the van was being held as evidence for the USAO's criminal investigation. (ECF No. 75 (“Joint Pretrial Statement”) at 2.)

         One pretrial issue the court resolved was Plaintiff's objection to Defendant's use of Plaintiff's interrogatory response regarding the conversation between AUSA Traster and Plaintiff's counsel's paralegal. (July 16, 2018 Pretrial Conference.) The statement is as follows.

Additionally, I have been told that . . . Evelyn Núñez, a paralegal at the WLC, . . . successfully reached AUSA Traster by phone . . . AUSA Traster told Ms. Núñez that my van was being held as evidence in a criminal proceeding, but she did not explain why the van was being held or how I could recover it or challenge its seizure. Because she was “slammed with cases, ” AUSA Traster explained that the earliest she could reach out to Defendant Dailey about my property was August 31, 2015.

(Pl.'s Resp. to Interrog. at 13.) The court agreed with Plaintiff that the interrogatory response was hearsay within hearsay-in part, because it begins with “I have been told that”-and expressed skepticism that it could be used as impeachment. (July 16, 2018 Pretrial Conference.)

         On July 20, 2018, the court vacated the scheduled trial date and scheduled an evidentiary hearing to consider evidence regarding Defendant's qualified immunity defense. (July 20, 2018 Min. Order.) After the parties notified the court that they had reached an agreement in principle to settle the case, the court postponed the evidentiary hearing. (ECF No. 87 (“Joint Notice of Agreement in Principle”); July 31, 2018 Min. Order.)

         Prior to the scheduled evidentiary hearing, the parties reached a settlement and filed a Joint Stipulation of Dismissal. (ECF No. 91.) The court dismissed the case with prejudice on August 10, 2018 (ECF No. 93), and granted the parties' joint motion to vacate the evidentiary hearing (ECF No. 94). The court retained jurisdiction to consider a future motion by Defendant to vacate the court's summary judgment ruling.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. ...


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