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Whitehurst v. Harris

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Jasper Division

January 6, 2015

SHERIFF RICK HARRIS, et al., Defendants.


L. SCOTT COOGLER, District Judge.

Before the Court are Defendants Rick Harris, Wes Brown, Keith Concord, Shawn Kelley, Tommy Hood, Joey Darty, Eric Oliver, Mitchell Jones, Jeremy Lockhart, and David Mize's motions to dismiss Plaintiff Tammy Whitehurst's first amended complaint for failure to state a claim. (Docs. 12, 14, 22.) All Defendants raise the defense of qualified immunity, and Defendants Brown, Harris, Kelley, and Concord have filed a motion to stay this matter pending resolution of potential state criminal proceedings. (Doc. 23.) The issues have been fully briefed and are ripe for review. For the reasons stated below, the motions are due to be granted in part and denied in part for the claims against Concord and the Jasper Officers, and granted for all claims against Brown, Harris, and Kelley. The motion to stay is due to be denied.

I. Background[1]

Plaintiff Tammy Whitehurst ("Whitehurst") brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 after members of the Winston County Sheriff's Office and the Jasper Police Department executed a search warrant at her home. Defendant Rick Harris ("Harris") is Sheriff of Winston County, Wes Brown ("Brown") is a narcotics investigator with the Winston County Sheriff's Office, and Keith Concord ("Concord") and Shawn Kelley ("Kelley") are sheriff's deputies. Defendants Joey Darty ("Darty"), Tommy Hood ("Hood"), Eric Oliver ("Oliver"), Mitchell Jones ("Jones"), Jeremy Lockhart ("Lockhart"), and David Mize ("Mize") are employed by the Jasper Police Department, and were members of the Jasper Critical Response Team (collectively the "Jasper Officers") that participated in the search of Whitehurst's home.

Whitehurst lived in a mobile home in Haleyville, Alabama. Whitehurst's brother, David Scruggs ("Scruggs") lived in neighboring mobile home approximately 350 feet away from Whitehurst's trailer. The address for Whitehurst's mobile home was 11755 Highway 13, Haleyville Alabama, while Scruggs's home was located at 11751. The Winston County Sheriff's Office suspected Scruggs of trafficking marijuana and receiving stolen property. Before a search warrant was obtained, Defendants Brown and Kelley visited Whitehurst at her home. Whitehurst told Brown and Kelley that Scruggs was spending nights at her home, as the power to Scruggs's neighboring trailer had recently been disconnected due to non-payment of the bill.

On August 16, 2012, Brown obtained a warrant authorizing a search of the residence at 11751 Highway 13, which is the location of Scruggs's mobile home rather than Whitehurst's. The warrant authorized seizure of evidence related to Scruggs's suspected crimes; a separate arrest warrant for Scruggs was also issued. In addition to including the address, the search warrant described the location to be searched as a "tan manufactured home at the end of the road." (Doc. 13-1, at 7.)

On August 17, 2012, Defendant Concord and the Jasper Officers used the warrant to search Whitehurst's mobile home. Defendants broke down the door, entered the mobile home with their guns drawn, and shouted at the occupants of the home to "get down on the floor." Defendant Darty shot Whitehurst's two dogs-a male and a female pit bull terrier-when the dogs attacked following Concord and the Jasper Officers' entry into the home. The female pit bull died as a result of the gunshot wounds. The dog had recently birthed a litter of puppies, some of which died soon after due to their inability to nurse. The male pit bull survived. Whitehurst's children were also present at the time the warrant was executed, and Whitehurst says that one of the bullets discharged during the dog attack came close to striking one of her children. Whitehurst's hands were cuffed with a zip tie and she was ordered to remain on the kitchen floor while Concord and the Jasper Officers searched the home for Scruggs and the items listed in the warrant. Defendants seized eight cellular phones from the residence.

Whitehurst filed this action on August 16, 2014, alleging that her Fourth Amendment rights were violated when Defendants searched her home without a warrant. Whitehurst also brings claims against Harris and Brown under a theory of supervisory liability, and asserts a claim against all Defendants for "failing to intervene" to stop the alleged Fourth Amendment violations. All Defendants have asserted the defense of qualified immunity. In addition, Brown, Harris, Concord, and Kelley have requested that the Court stay Whitehurst's § 1983 suit until the state court hears potential challenges to the warrant as part of Scruggs's criminal proceedings. Whitehurst has amended her complaint once as a matter of course pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a).

II. Standard of Review

Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires a pleading to contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The pleading must also contain a "demand for the relief sought, which may include relief in the alternative or different types of relief."

"Rule 8 marks a notable and generous departure from the hyper-technical, code-pleading regime of a prior era, but it does not unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-679 (2009). Instead, "[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 678 (internal quotations omitted). Iqbal establishes a two-step process for evaluating a complaint. First, the Court must "begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Id. at 679. Second, "[w]hen there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Id. Factual allegations in a complaint need not be detailed, but they "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).

In reviewing the complaint, the Court must "draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679, 129 S.Ct. at 1950. The Court must consider the "face of the complaint and attachments thereto" to determine whether the Plaintiff states a claim for relief.[2] Starship Enterprises of Atlanta, Inc. v. Coweta Cnty., Ga., 708 F.3d 1243, 1253 n.13 (11th Cir. 2013). A plaintiff need not plead each element of the cause of action but must plead "enough information regarding the material elements of a cause of action to support recovery under some viable legal theory." Am. Fed'n of Labor & Cong. of Indus. Orgs. v. City of Miami, Fla., 637 F.3d 1178, 1186 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotations omitted).

III. Discussion

A. Unlawful Search Claim Against Concord and the Jasper Officers

Whitehurst argues that Defendants violated the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures when Defendants (1) used a warrant issued for another residence to search Whitehurst's home, in effect making the search warrantless; and (2) failed to knock and announce their presence before entering the home. The Court first considers the Fourth Amendment claims against ...

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