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Johnson v. Yarbrough

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

January 25, 2018

STEVEN YARBROUGH, et al., Defendants.


          L. Scott Coogler United States District Judge

         Before the Court is Defendant DeBran Sudduth's (“Sudduth”) Motion to Dismiss. (Doc. 3.) Plaintiff Larry Donald Johnson (“Johnson”) alleges violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983, false imprisonment, conversion, theft, and negligent practices against multiple Defendants. The only claim asserted against Defendant Sudduth is unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Accordingly, Sudduth's motion and this opinion address only those claims. The motion has been fully briefed and is now ripe for decision. For the reasons stated below, Sudduth's motion to dismiss is due to be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         I. Background [1]

         Larry Johnson is a resident of the Town of Parrish, which is situated in Walker County, Alabama. Walker County is a dry county. Under Alabama Code § 28-04-201, et. seq. it is unlawful to sell, offer to sell, or personally possess more than three quarts of liquor and case of beer, or three quarts of wine and a case of beer in such counties. On August 20, 2014, Sudduth, serving as the Parrish Municipal Court Magistrate, signed two warrants (No. 14-000000110 and No. 14-000000110) for Johnson's arrest for allegedly having unlawfully possessed and sold alcoholic beverages without a license in violation of Parrish Municipal ordinance No. 96a-148, which embraces Section 28-04-201, Code of Alabama 1975.[2] (See Doc. 8-4.) Sudduth, who was the Clerk of the Parrish Municipal Court at the time, set bond for each violation at $500.00 cash, and then signed the warrants purportedly without a complaint, affidavit, or other written statement made under oath. Yarbrough executed the warrants on August 20, 2014, allegedly despite knowledge that they were unlawfully obtained. At 10:28 A.M. that same day, pursuant to the warrant, Yarborough stopped, detained, arrested, and transported Johnson to the Parrish Jail. Johnson paid the Parrish town clerk a $1, 000.00 cash bond to ensure his release, and he was required to return to court to answer the charges against him in order to avoid suspension of his driver license and forfeiture of his bail bond. On October 2, 2014, the Municipal Court of Parrish acquitted Johnson of all charges. Upon acquittal, Johnson made a request to the city clerk for return his $1, 000.00 bond. However, he was denied, and a delay occurred on account of the fact that the Town of Parrish had spent the money. Consequently, Johnson was required to wait weeks before the bond was returned to him in full.

         II. Standard of Review

         To survive a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). However, to satisfy this standard, the complaint must also include “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

         Iqbal establishes a two-step process for evaluating a complaint. First, the Court must “identify[] 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).

         A party need not specifically plead each element in his or her cause of action, but the pleading must contain “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). Ultimately, the Court must be able to draw a reasonable inference from the facts that the other party is liable. Reese v. Ellis, Painter, Ratterree & Adams, LLP, 678 F.3d 1211, 1215 (11th Cir. 2012). The Court must construe pleadings broadly and resolve inferences in the nonmoving party's favor. Levine v. World Fin. Network Nat'l Bank, 437 F.3d 1118, 1120 (11th Cir. 2006).

         III. Discussion

         A. Johnson's Complaint as against Sudduth states a claim upon which relief can be granted.

         Johnson avers that the two warrants for his arrest were obtained unlawfully because Sudduth issued them without competent lawful evidence, and “knew or should have known the criminal process begins upon the making a complaint and an arrest warrant cannot be lawfully issued without a written statement under oath substantially in compliance with the law.” (Doc. 1-2 at 8.) Additionally, he claims that the complaint and the warrant for Johnson's arrest were not within the bounds of the Fourth Amendment.[3]

         Under the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure, a warrant may be issued where it appears “from testimony of witnesses that an offense has been committed and there is probable cause to believe that the defendant committed it.”[4] Committee Comments, Ala. R. Crim. P. 3.1. In addition the Committee Comments for the Alabama Rule of Criminal Procedure explain, “[r]ule 3.1 is a restatement of Alabama law in that a warrant for the arrest of a defendant will issue only if it reasonably appears from a complaint or from affidavits filed with the complaint or from testimony of witnesses that an offense has been committed and there is probable cause to believe that the defendant committed it.” Committee Comments, Ala. R. Crim. P. 3.1. Sudduth asserts that “the [Plaintiff's] Complaint is silent as to whether the subject warrants were issued based upon witness testimony, but they certainly could have been pursuant to Ala. R. Crim. P. 3.1.” (Doc. 3 at 9.) The face of the warrants simply states, “probable cause being found on Complaint filed in this Court against Larry Donald Johnson, charging unlawful possession of alcoholic bevarage [sic] in violation of City Code. . . .” (Doc. 8-4 at 2-3.) Sudduth never states whether an oral statement or an affidavit was received from which Sudduth made a probable cause determination. While Johnson's claim that a warrant cannot be issued without a written statement is inaccurate, probable cause must have been based upon a complaint or affidavit or the testimony of witnesses; Plaintiff avers that none of those three requirements were met.[5] If true, those warrants would be defective and would have been issued in derogation of Johnson's rights. As such, the Court finds the Complaint sufficiently alleges facts capable of supporting a claim upon which relief can be granted.

         B. Eleventh Amendment Immunity

         To the extent that Johnson alleges that then Magistrate Sudduth, acting in his official capacity as a magistrate, improperly issued an arrest warrant, Sudduth was acting as an Alabama state official[6] and is entitled to the same immunity as the state itself from any federal-court judgment imposing money damages. Suit against Sudduth in his official capacity, is “no different from a suit against the State [of Alabama] itself, ” which is barred by Eleventh Amendment immunity. Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989); see also See Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-66, (1978). Sudduth issued the warrants for ...

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