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Weaver v. Stroman

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, Waco Division

September 27, 2019

ESTER WEAVER, WALTER WEAVER, SANDRA LYNCH, MICHAELD LYNCH, JULIE PERKINS, and JUSTIN WADDINGTON, Plaintiffs,
v.
BRENT STROMAN, MANUEL CHAVEZ, ABELINO “ABEL” REYNA, CITY OF WACO, TEXAS, McLENNAN COUNTY, TEXAS, ROBERT LANNING, JEFFREY ROGERS, PATRICK SWANTON, STEVEN SCHWARTZ, and CHRISTOPHER FROST, Defendants.

          ORDER

          ALAN D ALBRIGHT, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court are: Defendants Frost and Schwartz’s Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 56); the City Defendants’ Joint Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 57); Defendants Reyna and McLennan County’s Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 58); and the respective responses, replies, and sur-replies thereto. The Court, having considered the Motions and applicable law, finds that the Motions should be DENIED or DENIED in PART and GRANTED in PART as discussed below.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This case stems from the Twin Peaks restaurant incident on May 17, 2015. Members of the Bandidos and Cossacks Motorcycle Clubs, along with hundreds of other motorcycling enthusiasts, converged on the restaurant. Tensions between the Bandidos and Cossacks erupted in a shootout that left nine dead and many injured. In the aftermath of the incident, police arrested 177 individuals on charges of Engaging in Organized Criminal Activity. The probable cause affidavit in support of the arrest warrants was the same for each of the 177 arrestees, and a justice of the peace set bond for each of the arrestees at one million dollars. Only one of the criminal cases ever went to trial (the defendant in that case is not a party to the instant action), and those proceedings ended in a mistrial. The state eventually dropped all remaining charges against the arrestees. The plaintiffs in this case, Ester Weaver, Walter Weaver, Sandra Lynch, Michael Lynch, Julie Perkins, and Justin Waddington, were arrested pursuant to the same probable cause affidavit as the other arrestees.

         The plaintiffs bring this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They allege that the defendants violated their Fourth Amendment rights by obtaining arrest warrants based on a fill-in-the-name affidavit that lacked probable cause. Plaintiffs also allege that the defendants violated their Fourteenth Amendment due process right to be free from unlawful arrest. Plaintiffs allege that the defendants conspired to commit these violations.

         There are three groups of defendants in this case. The first group consists of: the City of Waco, Texas; Brent Stroman, Chief of Police; Robert Lanning, Assistant Chief of Police; detective Jeffrey Rogers; and police officers Manuel Chavez, Patrick Swanton. The second group is McLennan County, Texas and former McLennan County District Attorney Abelino “Abel” Reyna. The third group is Steven Schwartz and Christopher Frost, both of whom are special agents of the Texas Department of Public Safety. The plaintiffs bring suit against the City of Waco (“the City”) and McLennan County (“the County”) as municipalities and the other defendants in their individual capacities. The individual defendants all assert qualified immunity.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 creates a cause of action against any person who, under color of law, causes another to be deprived of a federally protected constitutional right. Two allegations are required to state a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. “First, the plaintiff must allege that some person has deprived him of a federal right. Second, he must allege that the person who has deprived him of that right acted under color of state or territorial law.” Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 640 (1980); Manax v. McNamara, 842 F.2d 808, 812 (5th Cir. 1988).

         Upon motion or sua sponte, a court may dismiss an action that fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6); Carroll v. Fort James Corp., 470 F.3d 1171, 1177 (5th Cir. 2006). To survive Rule 8, a nonmovant must plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). “The court’s task is to determine whether the plaintiff has stated a legally cognizable claim that is plausible, not to evaluate the plaintiff’s likelihood of success.” Lone Star Fund V (U.S.), L.P. v. Barclays Bank PLC, 594 F.3d 383, 387 (5th Cir. 2010). The court begins by identifying which allegations are well-pleaded facts and which are legal conclusions or elemental recitations; accepting as true the former and rejecting the latter. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A court need not blindly accept every allegation of fact; properly pleaded allegations of fact amount to more than just conclusory allegations or legal conclusions “masquerading as factual conclusions.” Taylor v. Books A Million, Inc., 296 F.3d 376, 378 (5th Cir. 2002). The court then determines whether the accepted allegations state a plausible claim to relief. Id. at 379.

         “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. “The court accepts all well-pleaded facts as true, viewing them in the light most favorable to the [nonmovant].” In re Katrina Canal Breaches Litig., 495 F.3d 191, 205 (5th Cir. 2007) (quotation marks omitted). “A claim has facial plausibility when the [nonmovant] pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the [movant] is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 678. “The plausibility standard . . . asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. For purposes of Rule 12(b)(6), “pleadings” include the complaint, its attachments, and documents referred to in the complaint and central to a plaintiff’s claims. Collins v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, 224 F.3d 496, 498–499 (5th Cir. 2000).

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a court may dismiss an action barred by qualified immunity. See Bustillos v. El Paso Cnty. Hosp. Dist., 226 F.Supp.3d 778, 793 (W.D. Tex. 2016) (Martinez, J.) (dismissing a plaintiff’s claim based on qualified immunity). Qualified immunity shields government officials from civil liability for claims under federal law unless their conduct “violates a clearly established constitutional right.” Mace v. City of Palestine, 333 F.3d 621, 623 (5th Cir. 2003). Qualified immunity balances “the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009). Because qualified immunity shields “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law, ” the Fifth Circuit considers qualified immunity the norm and admonishes courts to deny a defendant immunity only in rare circumstances. Romero v. City of Grapevine, 888 F.3d 170, 176 (5th Cir. 2018) (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Courts use a two-prong analysis to determine whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity. Cole v. Carson, No. 14-10228, 2019 WL 3928715, at *5 (5th Cir. Aug. 20, 2019), as revised (Aug. 21, 2019). A plaintiff must show (1) the official violated a constitutional right; and (2) the constitutional right was “clearly established” at the time of the defendant’s alleged misconduct. Reed v. Taylor, 923 F.3d 411, 414 (5th Cir. 2019). The Supreme Court held in Pearson that “the judges of the district courts . . . should be permitted to exercise their sound discretion in deciding which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity analysis should be addressed first.” 555 U.S. at 236. Although qualified immunity is an affirmative defense, the plaintiff bears the burden to rebut the defense and assert facts to satisfy both prongs of the analysis. Brumfield, 551 F.3d at 326. If a plaintiff fails to establish either prong, the public official is immune from suit. Zarnow v. City of Wichita Falls, 500 F.3d 401, 407 (5th Cir. 2007).

         A heightened pleading requirement is imposed on a civil rights plaintiff suing a state actor in his individual capacity. Elliott v. Perez, 751 F.2d 1472, 1479 (5th Cir. 1985). To satisfy the heightened pleading requirement and maintain a § 1983 action against an official who raises a qualified immunity defense, a complaint must allege with particularity all material facts establishing a plaintiff’s right of recovery, including “detailed facts supporting the contention that [a] plea of immunity cannot be sustained.” Leatherman v. Tarrant Cnty. Narcotics Intelligence and Coordination Unit, 954 F.2d 1054, 1055 (5th Cir. 1992). Mere conclusory allegations are insufficient to meet this heightened pleading requirement. Elliott, 751 F.2d at 1479.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Malley and Franks

         At the outset, the Court notes that Plaintiffs bring their claims against the defendants under both the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. But “[w]here a particular Amendment provides an explicit textual source of constitutional protection against a particular sort of government behavior, that Amendment, not the more generalized notion of substantive due process, must be the guide for analyzing these claims.” Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 273 (1994) (internal punctuation omitted). A citizen has a right under the Fourth Amendment to be free from arrest unless the arrest is supported by either a properly issued arrest warrant or probable cause. Flores v. City of Palacios, 381 F.3d 391, 402 (5th Cir. 2004). “The Framers considered the matter of pretrial deprivations of liberty and drafted the Fourth Amendment to address it.” Albright, 510 U.S. at 274. Because the Fourth Amendment covers unlawful arrest, Plaintiffs cannot also seek relief under the Fourteenth Amendment. Cuadra v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., 626 F.3d 808, 814 (5th Cir. 2010). Accordingly, Plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment claims are DISMISSED, and the Court will address their claims in the context of the Fourth Amendment.

         The Court also notes that Plaintiffs attempt to invoke an exception to the general rule described above, citing Cole v. Carson, 802 F.3d 752 (5th Cir. 2015), vacated sub nom. Hunter v. Cole, 137 S.Ct. 497 (2016). In Cole, the Fifth Circuit recognized deliberate fabrication of evidence by police may create a Fourteenth Amendment claim if such a claim may not be pursued under the Fourth Amendment. Id. First, Plaintiffs have a Fourth Amendment claim in this case. Second, the Fifth Circuit issued this decision on September 25, 2015, over four months after the shootout at Twin Peaks. Again, to overcome a defendant’s qualified immunity, a plaintiff must show that the constitutional right was “clearly established” at the time of the defendant’s alleged misconduct. Reed, 923 F.3d at 414. The exception that Plaintiffs seek to invoke had not yet been recognized in this Circuit at the time their cause of action arose, and as such, any right recognized in Cole was not clearly established.

         There are two claims against government agents for alleged Fourth Amendment violations in connection with a search or arrest warrant: (1) claims under Malley, 475 U.S. at 335, for which the agent may be liable if he “fil[es] an application for an arrest warrant without probable cause” and “a reasonable well-trained officer . . . would have known that [the] affidavit failed to establish probable cause, ” Michalik v. Hermann, 422 F.3d 252, 259–60 (5th Cir. 2005) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted); and (2) claims under Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154 (1978), for which the agent may be liable if he “makes a false statement knowingly and intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth that results in a warrant being issued without probable cause, ” Michalik, 422 F.3d at 258 n.5. In the instant case, Plaintiffs bring claims under both theories.

         i. Malley violation

         Plaintiffs allege that the defendants violated their Fourth Amendment rights by presenting a facially deficient warrant affidavit. Second Am. Compl. (hereinafter, “Am. Compl.”) at 43–44. Plaintiffs argue that the warrant is a general warrant, devoid of any particularized facts related to any of the plaintiffs. See Id . at Ex. 1 (warrant affidavit, also included below). They argue that the affidavit contains many facial shortcomings, including: it fails to describe specific actions by the plaintiffs; it contains no specific allegations regarding the plaintiffs’ membership or affiliation with a criminal street gang; it contains no specific allegations regarding a conspiracy to commit criminal acts; and it offers no specific allegation that the plaintiffs committed any violent act.

         A Malley violation is not the presentment of false evidence, but the obvious failure of accurately presented evidence to support the probable cause required for the issuance of a warrant.

         In Spencer v. Staton, an arrestee brought a § 1983 action alleging that she was arrested on a facially invalid warrant that was unsupported by probable cause. 489 F.3d 658, 661 (5th Cir. 2007). The affidavit contained only the arrestee’s biographical and contact information, the charged offense, and a conclusory statement that she had committed the crime of assisting others in evading authorities. Id. The Fifth Circuit held that this was “a textbook example of a facially invalid, ‘barebones’ affidavit.” Id.

         In Kohler v. Englade, police searching for a serial killer sought a DNA sample from the plaintiff during a criminal investigation. 470 F.3d 1104, 1107 (5th Cir. 2006). A detective prepared an affidavit for a seizure warrant that offered no indication as to the identity or credibility of a tipster who implicated the plaintiff, nor did the affidavit indicate any corroborating evidence to support the tip. Id. at 1110–11. Additional information in the affidavit regarding Kohler’s twenty-year-old burglary conviction, employment status, his past employment with a company with a secondary shop on a road where items belonging to one of the victims were found, and refusal to voluntarily submit to a saliva swab, failed to establish probable cause that he was the serial ...


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