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Dawson v. Jackson

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

August 23, 2017

BYRON JACKSON, et al. Defendants.



         This case is before the court on Defendants' Motion for Final Summary Judgment. (Doc. #18). The parties have fully briefed the motion (Docs. # 18-1, 21-22), and it is under submission.

         Plaintiff John Arthur Dawson (“Plaintiff”) alleges that the City of Leeds (“Leeds”), Chief of Police Byron Jackson (“Jackson”), and Inspection Superintendent Brad Watson (“Watson”) falsely arrested him, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Fourth Amendment, and unlawfully converted his property under Alabama state law. In moving for summary judgment, Defendants justify their actions toward Plaintiff on September 22, 2014 on his stubbornness. (Doc. 18 at 1-2). They contend that Plaintiff's argumentativeness and his refusal to move his car rose to the level of “obstructing governmental operations, ” which justified his arrest. (Id. at 1-2). And, Defendants deny converting Plaintiff's property because there was no unlawful removal of property. (Id. at 5). Moreover, even if a viable tort claim could be asserted by Plaintiff, Defendants argue that Jackson and Watson are protected by quasi-judicial immunity, qualified immunity, and state agent immunity. Likewise, according to Defendants, the City of Leeds is not liable for the false arrest due to a lack of vicarious liability. (Id. at 3). And, in any event, Defendants claim that Leeds is entitled to municipal immunity from the state-law intentional tort of conversion. (Id. at 5).

         After careful review, the court concludes that Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on the false arrest claim because no genuine dispute of material fact exists for that claim. Defendant Jackson is entitled to quasi-judicial immunity and qualified immunity for the false arrest claim. Defendant Watson is not liable for any constitutional violation that occurred during the arrest because he did not personally participate in the arrest, nor did he have any authority to order that the arrest take place. Moreover, the court finds no basis for vicarious liability against Defendant Leeds and further finds there is no substantial evidence that an unlawful custom or policy instituted by Leeds was the moving force behind the arrest. As such, all Defendants are entitled to summary judgment for the false arrest claim. Moreover, because all federal law claims in this action have been resolved, this court declines to exercise jurisdiction to proceed further on the conversion claim.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff received a Notice of Public Nuisance from Defendant Leeds on September 19, 2013, stating that a public nuisance existed on his property at 1305 Vivian Street. (Doc. 18-2 at 6). The alleged nuisance included “overgrown grass and weeds, in violation of Section 11-13 of the Leeds Code of Ordinances.” (Id.). The notice directed Plaintiff to abate the nuisance within fifteen days. (Id.).

         On October 7, 2013, a Uniform Non-Traffic Citation and Complaint was issued to Plaintiff. (Id. at 2). The citation stated that Plaintiff had “allowed an accumulation of weeds, junk, inoperable motor vehicles, junk, debris [and] litter” to accumulate on his property, in violation of City of Leeds Ordinance Number 606. (Id.). Under Section 1 of this ordinance, it is unlawful for a lot to have “injurious, noxious, or unsightly weeds, ” inoperable motor vehicles, or various forms of litter on any lot or premises. (Doc. 18-5 at 3). Section 4 of this ordinance allows for a municipal judge to order abatement and removal of the violation. (Id. at 5).

         On January 17, 2014, Plaintiff was found guilty in the Leeds Municipal Court. (Id. at 9). The municipal court ordered Plaintiff to “abate [the] property to meet code requirements” and pay a $500 fine. (Id.). Plaintiff immediately gave notice of an appeal. (Id. at 9, 11-12). On March 18, 2014, a trial was set in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County for August 11, 2014. (Doc. 18-6 at 1). Proceeding pro se, Plaintiff mistakenly thought that the trial was set for August 18, 2014. (Id. at 14). When he failed to appear on August 11, a circuit judge dismissed Plaintiff's appeal and a writ of procedendo was ordered. (Id. at 3). On September 2, 2014, Plaintiff's first motion to reinstate his appeal was denied by the circuit court. (Id. at 5). Three days later, on September 5, 2014, Plaintiff's second motion to reinstate appeal was denied due to mootness. (Id. at 7).

         On Monday, September 22, 2014, Defendant Watson arrived at Plaintiff's property. (Doc. 18-6 at 14). The subsequent events at Plaintiff's property were captured on video. (Doc. 18-6 at 8, Ex. 9 at 00:01-59:18). Upon entering the property, Watson and Plaintiff began to speak with each other, and Watson appeared to explain that an abatement was taking place and that Plaintiff's second motion to reinstate appeal had been denied. (Id. at 00:01-01:04). Plaintiff disputed this, saying that he still had an appeal pending. (Id. at 01:04-01:37). Defendant Watson informed Plaintiff that he was “obstructing a lawful operation” and asked someone off-camera to contact a police officer. (Id. at 01:38-01:48). The men continued to compare paperwork and argue about whether there had been a denial; during this conversation, Plaintiff insisted that he had filed a third motion to reinstate appeal that had not been denied. (Id. at 02:05-03:57). Defendant Watson reiterated that Plaintiff was “interfering with a governmental operation, ” which Plaintiff denied. (Id. at 03:58-04:24). In turn, Plaintiff contended that the abatement order was not lawful (i.e., “not good”). (Id.). Plaintiff also retorted that Defendant Watson was trespassing on his property. (Id. at 04:24-04:50).

         Plaintiff and Defendant Watson then briefly walked away from each other, as Plaintiff continued to look through his paperwork. (Id. at 05:55-07:20). Plaintiff then claimed that the judge had granted his “motion to rescind” on the prior Friday, and that Defendant Watson simply needed to check to see if he had received it. (Id. at 07:20-08:40). Plaintiff stated that he was in “full compliance according to the pictures” with the municipal regulations and asked what else needed to be done; Defendant Watson responded that he was not in compliance. (Id. at 08:50-09:50). Plaintiff then proceeded to walk away, moving several things in his yard while the video panned around the property. (Id. at 9:50-17:30). Defendant Watson spoke via telephone to an unknown person, “Laura, ” who seemingly confirmed that there was nothing (such as a pending motion) that would prevent Watson from executing the order. (Id. at 17:30-18:40). At this point, uniformed police officers, including Defendant Jackson, arrived. (Id. at 18:40-18:45). Meanwhile, a voice on Plaintiff's telephone, which he was holding, appears to state that the motion that had been filed and granted was one to “retax, ” not one to “reinstate.” (Id. at 18:45-19:49). Defendant Watson, who could also hear the voice, agreed with this statement.[1] (Id.). Watson again explained to Plaintiff that he was interfering with governmental operations, while Plaintiff again responded that he was in full compliance and told Watson and his personnel to get off his property “right now.” (Id. at 19:50-20:38).

         Throughout the video, a station wagon with a “No Trespassing” sign in the back window was parked on Plaintiff's property several feet in front of a wooden fence leading to his backyard. (Id. at 00:01-39:20). Plaintiff explained that he had moved the station wagon to the front of his gate “for the police” on Thursday, that he did not need to move it, and that the municipal court's order did not mandate him to move it off of his property and into the road. (Id. at 20:45-21:17). At this point, Defendant Watson requested that one of the police officers walk over, explained to the officer that he had a municipal court order that needed to be executed, and stated that Plaintiff was interfering with a government operation, all of which Plaintiff disputed. (Id. at 21:17-21:55). Plaintiff stated to the officer that he was not required to move his car, which he claimed that he had parked in that spot on Thursday, because “this is America.” (Id. at 21:55-22:23). Defendant Watson then claimed that the station wagon had an expired tag and was immobile. (Id. at 22:23-23:00). In response, Plaintiff produced what appeared to be registration documentation and claimed that the police officer present had seen him move the vehicle previously. (Id.). Defendant Watson stated that he had to witness the vehicle moving himself and that Plaintiff was interfering with a governmental operation. (Id. at 23:00-23:30). Plaintiff proceeded to open the hood of his car and perform some work on it, failing to start it several times. (Id. at 23:30-39:20). Eventually, Plaintiff managed to start the car, back it up a short distance, pull forward a short distance, and turn the engine off. (Id. at 39:20-39:40).

         Defendant Watson walked towards Plaintiff, but Plaintiff made a shooing hand motion and continued to argue that he was in full compliance with the city ordinance. (Id. at 41:15-44:40). Plaintiff also claimed that he had not exhausted his appeal rights because he had a new appeal filed and pending within the time limit. (Id.). At this point, Defendant Watson called over Defendant Jackson and informed him that Plaintiff was refusing to allow the city to enter his property. Plaintiff argued that he simply had asked questions and had not refused anything. (Id. at 44:40-45:30). However, Plaintiff stated that he would not move his car off the property, he was not required to do so, and the officers could not enter his backyard through his house without a warrant. (Id. at 45:30-45:45). Defendant Jackson then handcuffed Plaintiff and informed him that he was under arrest. Jackson explained that he was taking Plaintiff to jail for interfering with government operations. (Id. at 45:45-47:30). Plaintiff's son proceeded to move two cars, including the station wagon driven by Plaintiff, out of the way of the city workers. (Id. at 48:35-56:20). The son then spoke to Defendant Watson about some items on the property and helped to open the gate to allow entry into the backyard. (Id.).

         The video shows two vehicles parked in the backyard, along with some overgrowth, but the recording ended before any removal of items began. (Id. at 56:20-59:18). The parties now dispute whether the vehicles in question were inoperable and therefore subject to removal under the ordinance, citation, or municipal court order. (See Docs. 18-1 at 9; 21 at 7). Charges against Dawson on obstruction of governmental operations were nol prossed by the City of Leeds on October 16, 2015.[2] (Doc. 21 at 7).

         B. ...

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