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Tillis v. Blanks

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division

January 10, 2017

STACEY TILLIS Plaintiff,
v.
RAY S. BLANKS and CITY OF SELMA, ALABAMA, Defendants.

          ORDER & MEMORANDUM

          CALLIE V. S. GRANADE SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Stacey Tillis's (“Tillis”) and Defendants Ray S. Blanks (“Blanks”) and the City of Selma's (the “City”) cross-motions for summary judgment. A hearing being unnecessary, the Court considers the motions on the basis of Defendants' motion and memorandum (Doc. 13), Plaintiff's response (Doc. 26), and Defendants' reply (Doc. 29), and of Plaintiff's motion and supporting documents (Docs. 14-16), Defendants' response (Doc. 25), and Plaintiff's reply (Doc. 30). After due consideration, the Court finds it proper to GRANT Plaintiff's motion in part and to DENY Plaintiff's motion in part; the Court further GRANTS Defendants' motion in part and DENIES Defendants' motion in part.

         I. Summary Judgment Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) instructs, “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment 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.” The trial court's mission is to “determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial” and not to “weigh the evidence.” See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

         The burden is on the moving party to show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. Id. at 256. In conducting its summary judgment analysis, the Court must construe all evidence “in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962).

         After the movant meets its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party “to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). If the nonmoving party fails to do so, the “complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Id. at 323. Further, Rule 56 “requires the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and by [his] own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (internal quotation marks omitted). There is no genuine issue for trial “[w]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

         With specific respect to the resolution of a summary judgment motion based on qualified immunity, the Eleventh Circuit has declared:

[W]e approach the facts from the plaintiff's perspective because “[t]he issues appealed here concern not which facts the parties might be able to prove, but, rather, whether or not certain given facts showed a violation of clearly established law.” Sheth v. Webster, 145 F.3d 1231, 1236 (11th Cir. 1998). As this Court has repeatedly stressed, the “facts, as accepted at the summary judgment stage of the proceedings, may not be the actual facts of the case.” Priester v. City of Riviera Beach, 208 F.3d 919, 925 n.3 (11th Cir. 2000). Nevertheless, for summary judgment purposes, our analysis must begin with a description of the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Skrtich v. Thornton, 280 F.3d 1295, 1299 (11th Cir. 2002).

McCullough v. Antolini, 559 F.3d 1201, 1202 (11th Cir. 2009).

         II. Background

         Tillis filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Dallas County against Blanks and the City, alleging violations of her Fourth Amendment rights through 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (See Doc. 1). Defendants removed the case to this Court on the basis of federal question jurisdiction. Id. In her First Amended Complaint, Tillis expanded her claims to include a claim against the City for failing to adequately train or supervise Blanks in his practice of executing warrants and failing to discipline Blanks for violating Tillis's constitutional rights; she also asserted two state law claims against Blanks and the City. (See Doc. 8). The Court exercises jurisdiction over the federal claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441 and over the related state law claims through supplemental jurisdiction granted in 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

         After the close of discovery, the parties submitted cross motions for summary judgment, along with the appropriate responses and replies thereto. Defendants seek summary judgment in their favor as to all four counts, and Plaintiff asks this Court to grant summary judgment as to her two § 1983 claims (Counts I-II). (See Docs. 13, 14).

         The Court has reviewed the parties' submissions and the evidence submitted in favor of and against their respective positions and considers the following facts, viewed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party.

         A. The Burglaries in January 2014

         On January 16, 2014, Mr. Eric Kelly of Selma, Alabama, reported his home had been burglarized. (Doc. 14-3). The Selma Police Department (“SPD”) responded and prepared Uniform Incident/Offense Report number 2014-1472. Id. Mr. Kelly stated a 50-inch flat screen television was missing but did not provide any manufacturing information or a serial number. Id. SPD Lieutenant Curtis Muhannad assigned the case to Detective Ray S. Blanks, [1] a seven-year veteran of the SPD, on January 21, 2014; Blanks began investigating the case that same day. (Doc. 13-9, p. 1; Doc. 13-5).

         On January 21, Blanks met with Mr. Kelly, his then-girlfriend Ms. Asheemeka Howard, and a witness to the crime, Ms. Temeka Morgan. (Doc. 13-9, p. 1). Ms. Howard indicated Mr. Sylvester Lewis[2] visited Mr. Kelly's house around 1:50 P.M., but it is unclear whether they engaged in any conversation. Id.; see also Doc. 14-5, pp. 25, 34-36. After Ms. Howard heard a knocking sound on Mr. Kelly's front door, she opened the door to see Lewis, who quickly left Mr. Kelly's property. (Doc. 13-9, p. 1). In his meeting with Blanks, Mr. Kelly stated he was at work on the afternoon of the burglary when Lewis visited him and inquired about any job openings. Id. Mr. Kelly indicated the business was not hiring, and Lewis left around 2:20 P.M. Id. Mr. Kelly told Blanks Ms. Howard called him shortly after 2:20 P.M. to tell Mr. Kelly that Lewis had stopped by his home. Id. In her interview, Ms. Morgan told Blanks she was driving down Water Avenue, where Mr. Kelly's home is located, at approximately 2:30 P.M. on the afternoon of January 16, 2014 and observed an African-American male at Mr. Kelly's front door. Id.; see also Doc. 14-4, pp. 47-48. Ms. Morgan further stated she recognized the man as Lewis, and she later positively identified him from a “six pack photo lineup.” (Doc. 13-9, p. 1).

         Based upon this information, Blanks suspected Lewis was involved in the burglary of Mr. Kelly's home. (Doc. 13-9, p. 2). Blanks obtained an arrest warrant for Lewis on January 24, 2014 from Judge Joseph Hagood. Id. Blanks testified he followed routine practice in obtaining this arrest warrant, including having the District Attorney's office review the warrant. (See Doc. 14-5, p. 51).

         A second burglary occurred on January 19, 2014 at the home of Mr. John Grayson. (Doc. 13-10). Mr. Grayson reported the incident to SPD, and officers were dispatched to his home and prepared Uniform Incident/Offense Report number 2014-1732. Id. Mr. Grayson stated the following items were missing from his home: (a) 33-inch flat screen television, possibly manufactured by Vizeo; (b) three [Dell] laptop computers; (c) one Compaq computer; (d) one Playstation 3 gaming console; (e) one 270-caliber rifle, possibly manufactured by Remington; and (f) one .22- caliber rifle, possibly manufactured by Remington.[3] Id. at 1. The police were unable to find a point of entry, and Mr. Grayson suggested the burglar might have gained access by using the spare key. Id. at 2. The police collected no other evidence or information from the scene. Id. at 2-3. Blanks testified Mr. Grayson later told him he “had got knowledge that a white SUV was seen in his yard during the time of the burglary, ” and Blanks believed Lewis was involved due to the vehicle description.[4](Doc. 14-5, p. 55).

         During his investigation, Blanks learned Lewis lived with Tillis[5] at the residence she rented, located at 215 Lawrence Street, Selma, Alabama. (See Doc. 13-9, p. 1; Doc. 14-4, p. 1). The case report does not include details of how he obtained this knowledge. Id. Tillis owned a 2006 white Ford Explorer at the time and allowed Lewis to use the vehicle while she was at work. (See Doc. 13-11; Doc. 13-1, p. 8).

         B. Blanks's Search Warrant Affidavit and the Search Warrant

         After his investigation Blanks prepared a search warrant application and affidavit to obtain a search warrant for the stolen items on February 6, 2014. (Doc.13-9, p. 12). In his application and affidavit, he stated:

On January 21, 2014, I, Detective Blanks, started investigating a burglary that occurred on January 16, 2014 at 3011 Water Avenue located in Selma, Alabama. A 50” flat screen television was taken during the burglary. During this investigation, I developed a suspect in this case who is identified as B/M Sylvester Lewis Jr. I further learned that Sylvester Lewis Jr. resides at 215 Lawrence Street in Selma, AL. At this time, I have an active warrant on Sylvester Lewis for Burglary 3rdDegree. At this time, I Detective Blanks is [sic] requesting permission to search for and seize any or all televisions, computers, laptops, tablets, and all or any electronics devices or stolen merchandise that is located at 215 Lawrence Street in Selma, Alabama.
Affiant shows that based on the above and foregoing information, Affiant has probable cause to believe that, (Wanted Person (Sylvester Lewis Jr.), and any or all televisions, computers, laptops, tablets and all or any electronics devices or stolen merchandise} is being, concealed, used and/or possessed upon the aforesaid premises/persons/vehicle. Due to the Affiant's experience with such locations/operations the following items may also be present: (Wanted Person (Sylvester Lewis Jr.}, and any or all televisions, computers, laptops, tablets and all or any electronics devices or stolen merchandise} and is subject to seizure and makes this Affidavit so that a warrant may be issued to search said premises/person/property.

(Doc. 14-6) (hereinafter the “Affidavit”).[6] Before presenting the Affidavit to Judge Hagood, Blanks submitted it to his superior officer Lt. Muhannad for review, as is customary practice in the SPD. (Doc. 14-5, p. 23; Doc. 14-9, p. 16). Because the District Attorney's office had previously reviewed Blanks's application and affidavit for Lewis's arrest warrant, he did not take it to that office for further review. (Doc. 14-5, p. 29). The City's corporate representative, Sergeant Evelyn Ghant[7] of the SPD, testified it is customary practice for the District Attorney's office to review applications for arrest and search warrants. (Doc. 14-9, pp. 16-17).

         After receiving approval from Lt. Muhannad, Blanks presented the Affidavit before Judge Hagood. (Doc. 14-5, p. 23; Doc. 13-9, p. 1). Judge Hagood signed the Affidavit on February 6, 2014 at 9:33 A.M. (Affidavit). At that time, Judge Hagood issued a search warrant (the “Search Warrant”) authorizing the search of Tillis's home, located at 215 Lawrence Street, for numerous items. (See Doc. 14-7). The Search Warrant authorized the search and seizure of the following:

The residence at (215 Lawrence Street, Selma, A) . . . The residence is to include any and all rooms, closets, drawers, cabinets and items that could be used to conceal illegal narcotics. Any illegal paraphernalia, weapons[, ] any documents, all cell phones and electronic devises [sic] with the permission to download any or all media and photos that is needed for court purposes, or stolen merchandise.
*** For the following: (Wanted Person (Sylvester Lewis Jr.), and any or all televisions, computers, laptops, tablets and all or any electronics devices or stolen merchandise) and any and all other stolen merchandise.

(Search Warrant, Doc. 14-7) (emphasis in the original). Notably, the Search Warrant does not incorporate by reference any other document relating to Blanks's investigation, including his Affidavit or the arrest warrant for Lewis. Id. After receiving the Search Warrant, Blanks and other members of the SPD proceeded to Tillis's residence, where they arrested Lewis and executed the Search Warrant. (Doc. 13-9, p. 2).

         C. Search of Tillis's Home

         Blanks executed the Search Warrant at approximately 9:45 A.M. on February 6, 2014 for approximately thirty to forty minutes. (Doc. 13-9, p. 2; Doc. 14-5, p. 132). Tillis had been at work when the search began but unexpectedly came home early; when she arrived, she found members of the SPD, including Blanks, at her home. (Doc. 13-1, pp. 3, 5). In his case report summary, Blanks stated, “I also executed a search warrant at the residence [in] which all electronic devices were confiscated from the residence.” (Doc. 13-9, p. 2). The Evidence Property Receipts indicate the following items were seized from Tillis's home:

1. black nylon bag containing De-Icer, Bengal fireant killer, bolt cutter, hammer, debit card with Christopher Grayson, coins, cologne, knife, and lotion
2. black nylon bag containing Xbox 360 s/n: 127920713305, notebook, box of .22 cal[iber] bullets, flashlight, black leather belt[, ] blue belt, and chords
3. Insignia Television s/n: 217LE24MS76AH015859
4. JVC Television s/n: 067R0882[8]
5. Xbox 360 S/N: 314870594705
6. Panasonic Blue Ray DVD Player S/N: VA0LB003008
7. RCA Tablet without serial number
8. RCA Tablet s/n: TA161CL1A0256
9. RCA Tablet without serial number
10. RCA Tablet without serial number
11. HP destop [sic] monitor s/n: CND8082881
12. HP hard drive s/n: 2UA9451FMX
13. Verizon cellphone
14. Empty RCA Tablet boxes
15. Busted laptop w/ no serial number found in lot next to the residence
16. Red Child Four Wheeler

(Compare Doc. 14-8 with Doc. 13-7). The two evidence logs prepared by SPD evidence technician(s) submitted into evidence at this time do not reflect the same information. One evidence log omits the “red child four wheeler, ” and the other omits the “busted laptop” which was found on the property adjacent to Tillis's home. Id. Blanks indicates one form was given to Tillis at her home when SPD finished the search and seizure and that the second report was given to him from Evidence Tech as a part of the record of his investigation. (Doc. 14-5, p. 79).

         Tillis testified Blanks and the SPD removed all the electronics from her home, including her personal cell phone, all televisions, her children's tablets, a gaming console, a Blu Ray/DVD player, and their four-wheeler. (Doc. 13-1, p. 13-14; Doc. 13-9, p. 4).[9] Blanks characterized the children's four-wheeler as an “electronic device” because it “runs off spark plugs.” (Doc. 14-5, p. 58). After further investigation, Blanks determined only a nylon bag containing Mr. Grayson's debit card was stolen property; none of the electronics seized from Tillis's home had been reported stolen. Id. at 131.

         Blanks states he advised Tillis before leaving her residence, “any [seized] property that did not compare [to stolen property] would be released back to her.” (Doc. 14-5, p. 56). Tillis claims Blanks told her she would have to go to the police station to determine what items had been seized from her home during the search. (Doc. 13-1, pp. 5-6). She further alleges Blanks was “real ugly about the situation” when she questioned him at her home. Id. at 8. The City's policy is to require proof of ownership of seized property before it will be released back to the claiming party. (Doc. 14-5, p. 95). Tillis states Blanks told her several times she would be able to retrieve her items if she brought documents establishing ownership. (Doc. 13-1, p. 8).

         During his deposition, Blanks recounted his reasoning for believing Lewis had committed the Kelly burglary (see Doc. 14-5, p. 45). He further admitted he made a “mistake” by leaving out any information relating to the Grayson burglary in his Affidavit but affirmatively asserted that he considered the Grayson burglary when he was preparing the Affidavit and the Search Warrant. Id. at 55, 75. Blanks further stated, “my probable cause and the search warrant [for Tillis's home] are pretty much referenced from the information from the affidavit for the arrest.” Id. at 28, 41-42. Blanks stated he “had a reasonable suspicion” that Lewis had committed the burglaries and revealed “the probable cause was developed by the DA's [District ...


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