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McKinney v. Fannin

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

August 3, 2017

JEB FANNIN, et al., Defendants.


          VIRGINIA EMERSON HOPKINS, United States District Judge

         The magistrate judge filed a report and recommendation on July 10, 2017, 2017, recommending that this action be dismissed without prejudice for failing to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b). (Doc. 6). The plaintiff was notified of his right to file objections within fourteen (14) days of the report and recommendation (id.), and on July 20, 2017, the court received the plaintiff's objections (doc. 7) and a “Supplemental Pleading” (doc. 8).

         In his complaint, construed liberally, the plaintiff asserted he is illegally detained because he did not receive a probable cause hearing after his arrest. In response to the report and recommendation of the magistrate judge, the plaintiff now asserts, by way of objections, that defendant Stephen Ledbetter violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure and failed to comply with the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Doc. 7 at 1). The plaintiff argues that a form complaint and arrest warrant, unaccompanied by a separate affidavit, fail to meet the requirements of the Fourth Amendment and fail to establish probable cause. (Id.).

         Setting aside the fact that the plaintiff did not raise the constitutionality of a “form complaint and arrest warrant, unaccompanied by a separate affidavit” in his complaint, nothing in this objection has merit.[1] Under Alabama law, even if “the writ of arrest was wrongly issued it does not follow that the arrest was invalid.”[2] Rennow v. State, 255 So.2d 602, 603 (Ala.Crim.App. 1971). Moreover, an arrest not in compliance with Alabama statutes is not a per se violation of the federal Constitution. See Knight v. Jacobson, 300 F.3d 1272, 1276 (11th Cir. 2002) (stating that “[s]ection 1983 does not create a remedy for every wrong committed under the color of state law, but only for those that deprive a plaintiff of a federal right ....” and further noting that “there is no federal right not to be arrested in violation of state law.”) (citations omitted);Wilcox v. Ford, 813 F.2d 1140, 1145 n. 7 (11th Cir. 1987) (a federal court is not concerned with violations of state law unless the violation raises federal constitutional problems).

         More importantly, the complaint and warrant for the plaintiff's arrest were within the bounds of the Fourth Amendment, as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment due process clause.[3] The facts set forth in the complaint were sworn to by defendant Ledbetter, which provided a reasonable basis for the warrant to issue. See Harris v. Falls, 920 F.Supp.2d 1247, 1260 (N.D.Ala. 2013). Nothing under the Constitution or Alabama law requires an affidavit in support of a warrant be set forth on a wholly separate sheet of paper, as the plaintiff seems to argue. Additionally, the Constitution also allows an arrest without a warrant where law enforcement officers have probable cause to believe that an individual has engaged in a felony. Probable cause exists where the facts and totality of the circumstances, as collectively known to the law enforcement officers and based on reasonably trustworthy information, are “sufficient to cause a person of reasonabl[e] caution to believe an offense has been or is being committed.” Parker v. Allen, 565 F.3d 1258, 1289 (11th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted). See also United States v. Floyd, 281 F.3d 1346, 1348 (11th Cir. 2002).

         Thus, even if the arrest warrant was fatally deficient, this does not equate to an arrest without probable cause. Additionally, even if an officer lacked actual probable cause to make an arrest, he is nevertheless entitled to qualified immunity if there was arguable probable cause for the arrest. Jones v. Cannon, 174 F.3d 1271, 1283 (11th Cir. 1999). Arguable probable cause exists if a reasonable police officer, knowing what the defendant knew, could have believed that there was probable cause for the arrest. Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1195 (11th Cir. 2002) (quoting Scarbrough v. Myles, 245 F.3d 1299, 1302 (11th Cir. 2001)). In determining whether arguable probable cause existed at the time of the arrest, the courts look at the totality of the circumstances. Davis v. Williams, 451 F.3d 759 (11th Cir. 2006).

         Whether the plaintiff intended to raise a claim of malicious prosecution on the grounds that he was arrested and detained based on a warrant that was unsupported by probable cause and/or a claim that he was falsely arrested or imprisoned without a warrant, both claims fail. The plaintiff's conclusory assertions that the arrest warrant was unconstitutional and not supported by probable cause are insufficient to bring into question the validity of the arrest warrant.[4] Although courts are required to construe pro se complaints liberally, the complaint must nevertheless allege facts from which the inference of a constitutional violation is plausible, not merely speculative. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 557 (2007); Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Edwards v. Prime, Inc., 602 F.3d 1276, 1291 (11th Cir. 2010). Moreover, a claim of malicious prosecution does not accrue until the criminal proceedings have been favorably terminated in the plaintiff's favor, which has not occurred here. See Wood v. Kessler, 323 F.3d 872, 882 (11th Cir. 2003) (noting probable cause bars a malicious prosecution claim).

         The state court records reflect that the Court Clerk signed a Complaint based on the statement under oath of Stephen Ledbetter that he had probable cause to believe that on or about March 21, 2017, the plaintiff possessed methamphetamine near Home Depot, in Sylacauga, Alabama. State of Alabama v. Dionne Carlos McKinney, DC 2017-100181.00 (Talladega County, Ala.). See e.g., Sada v. City of Altamonte Springs, 434 Fed.App'x 845, 849 (11th Cir. 2001) (holding that various witnesses' statements were sufficient to establish probable cause). As previously stated, the constitution requires no more than this for Fourth Amendment purposes. Under Alabama law too, this is sufficient. See e.g., Hunt v. State, 659 So.2d 933, 947-48 (Ala.Crim.App. 1994) (finding substantially similar complaint adequate to establish probable cause).

         The evidence at the defendants' disposal at time the complaint and arrest warrant issued was more than sufficient to establish arguable probable cause. The plaintiff's general assertions that probable cause was not established, with no specific factual support, do not require a finding otherwise. See e.g., Dalrymple v. Reno, 334 F.3d 991, 996 (11th Cir. 2003) (something more than mere conclusory notice pleading is required in civil rights complaints, especially where the defense of qualified immunity is involved). Even if the charges are eventually dropped, or there is an acquittal, is of no consequence in determining the validity of the arrest itself. Marx v. Gumbinner, 905 F.2d 1503, 1507 (11th Cir. 1990). See also Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 641(1987) (“it is inevitable that law enforcement officials will in some cases reasonably but mistakenly conclude that probable cause is present, and we have indicated that in such cases those officials ... should not be held personally liable.”).

         The plaintiff asserts that defendant Ledbetter knew or should have know that a form complaint and arrest warrant failed to establish probable cause and therefore should not have applied for the arrest warrant. (Doc. 7 at 1). To the extent that this can be construed as an objection to the sufficiency of the evidence underlying the complaint and arrest warrant, such a challenge properly falls within the realm of habeas corpus, assuming the same is properly raised during trial. See McDowell Bey v. Vega, 588 Fed. App'x 923, 926 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 78 (2005)). As previously stated, a witness statement can be sufficient to establish probable cause. An affidavit need not reflect the direct personal observations of the affiant and may be based on hearsay. See Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 241-242 (1983); United States v. Ventresca, 380 U.S. 102, 1108 (1965).

         In Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), the Supreme Court clarified the interplay between habeas and civil-rights claims. The Court ruled that a § 1983 claim for damages does not accrue “for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, ” until the plaintiff proves that the “conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus.” Id. at 486-87 (footnote omitted). Heck has been extended to claims for declaratory and injunctive relief. See Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641, 648 (1997) (Heck bars a § 1983 action seeking damages and declaratory relief which challenges a prison disciplinary hearing forfeiting good-time credits).

         While not all § 1983 actions for Fourth Amendment search and seizure violations imply the invalidity of a conviction such that Heck would bar those claims, Hughes v. Lott, 350 F.3d 1157, 1160 (11th Cir. 2003), here the plaintiff's allegations necessarily challenge the validity of the charges. The plaintiff may not use § 1983 as a means to test the evidence against him prior to his state court criminal trial.[5] See e.g., Abella v. Rubino, 63 F.3d 1063, 1064-65 (11th Cir. 1995) (holding that the plaintiff's argument that the defendants “knowingly and willfully conspired to convict him falsely by fabricating testimony and other evidence against him” was barred under Heck because “[j]udgment in favor of Abella on these claims [that the defendants unconstitutionally conspired to convict him of crimes he did not commit] would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction.”); see also Vickers v. Donahue, 137 Fed.App'x 285, 290 (11th Cir. 2005) (claims alleging malicious and false arrest would necessarily invalidate a conviction that had not been reversed or declared invalid and therefore were barred under Heck).

         The plaintiff next objects that his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment were abridged by defendant Ledbetter obtaining a warrant for his arrest that was not supported by probable cause. (Doc. 7 at 1-2). This argument fares no better than the plaintiff's argument under the Fourth Amendment, and in fact is indistinguishable from it. Again, until the plaintiff exhausts his state court remedies, including raising these issues at trial and on appeal, Heck bars his § 1983 claim here. Wilkinson, 544 U.S. at 81-82 (“§1983 suit is barred (absent prior invalidation)-no matter the relief sought (damages or equitable relief), no matter the target of the prisoner's suit (state conduct leading to conviction or internal prison proceeding)-if success in that action would necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of confinement or its duration.”) (emphasis in original).

         The plaintiff's further objections are no more than restatements of his first two. He asserts that defendant Judge Fannin issued a facially invalid warrant because it was a form complaint without a separate affidavit.[6] (Doc. 7 at 2). To the extent that the plaintiff is attempting to assert that Judge Fannin acted in absence of jurisdiction, his argument is misplaced. Issuing arrest warrants is a function normally performed by a judge and is clearly within the jurisdictional authority of a state court judge. See e g., Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 362 (1978) (holding that judge is entitled to absolute judicial immunity for all actions taken within the exercise of his jurisdiction); Simmons v. Conger, 86 F.3d 1080, 1085 (11th Cir. 1996) (same). A judge is entitled to this immunity even though the act he undertook “was in error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of his authority.” Stump, 435 U.S. at 356. Defendant Fannin is a judge of the District Court of Talladega County, Alabama. The plaintiff's interactions with Judge Fannin, ...

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