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Lawson v. Gregg

United States District Court, D. Alaska

October 20, 2015

LEONARD A. LAWSON, JR., Plaintiff,
JEFFERY GREGG, et al., Defendants

          Leonard A. Lawson, Jr, Plaintiff, Pro se, Anchorage, AK.

         For Jeffery Gregg, Monique Doll, Defendants: Samuel Charles Severin, LEAD ATTORNEY, Municipality of Anchorage, Anchorage, AK; Susan J. Lindquist, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. Attorney's Office (Anch), Anchorage, AK.

         For Nathaniel Clementson, Michael Dahlstrom, Richard F. Youngblood, State of Alaska, DOC, Defendants: Susan J. Lindquist, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. Attorney's Office (Anch), Anchorage, AK.


         Sharon L. Gleason, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court at Docket 72 is Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment. Defendants opposed at Docket 77, and Plaintiff replied at Docket 81. Shortly afterwards, Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss Based on Qualified Immunity at Docket 87. Plaintiff opposed at Docket 89, and Defendants replied at Docket 92. Oral argument was not requested by either party and was not necessary to the Court's determination of these motions. For the reasons discussed below, the Court denies Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and grants Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Based on Qualified Immunity.


         Defendants applied for and received an anticipatory warrant to retrieve a package that was packed with cocaine and addressed to an address on Stella Place.[1] The package was fitted with a beeper that would emit a different tone when the box was opened.[2] The anticipatory warrant listed as triggering conditions for its execution that the package be

delivered and received by a person at [the Stella Place home], or left at the front door, and a person takes the box inside, or a person takes the box to another location and one of the following has occurred: a change of tone indicating the box has been opened, the electronic device fails to transmit or at least two hours has elapsed with no change indicting the box remains unopened inside the residence.[3]

         As Defendants were delivering the package to the Stella Place home the beeper malfunctioned and submitted the tone indicating that the box had been opened.[4] The package was picked from the Stella Place home by Mr. Lawson's co-defendant and delivered to his residence.[5] Defendants entered the home and performed a sweep to retrieve the package.[6]

         On November 16, 2010, Mr. Lawson was indicted for drug conspiracy, possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking, attempted possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition.[7] Mr. Lawson moved to suppress evidence secured during the search of his residence.[8] The Magistrate Judge issued a Recommendation Regarding Motions to Suppress, which recommended denying Mr. Lawson's motion to suppress because the search complied with the anticipatory warrant or, alternatively, because exigent circumstances justified a warrantless entry.[9] The District Court Judge issued an order adopting the Magistrate Judge's recommendation in April 2011.[10]

         In July 2011, Mr. Lawson, representing himself, initiated this action by filing a Civil Rights Complaint in which he alleged " police, governmental, prosecutorial, and judicial misconduct of falsified statements, writings and documents; and illegal entry, search & seizure, arrest and incarceration; also improper investigation of alleged crime against this plaintiff, in reference to [the criminal case]." [11] Shortly thereafter, the Court issued an order staying Mr. Lawson's civil case until the conclusion of the criminal case.[12]

         In September 2011, Mr. Lawson's criminal case was tried before a jury. The jury found Mr. Lawson not guilty on the first three counts of the indictment but guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition.[13] Mr. Lawson appealed.[14] On November 30, 2012, the Ninth Circuit issued a memorandum disposition vacating his conviction and holding the firearm used to convict Mr. Lawson " was seized during an unlawful search and should have been suppressed." [15] The Circuit Court held that (1) the triggering conditions in the anticipatory search warrant had not been fulfilled and (2) Defendants had failed to demonstrate that there were exigent circumstances because they did not show it would have been time consuming to get a second search warrant. The Appeals Court did not consider Mr. Lawson's warrantless arrest.[16]

         On February 27, 2013, the Court issued an order lifting the stay of this case and permitting Mr. Lawson to file an amended complaint.[17] Mr. Lawson filed an Amended Complaint on April 29, 2013.[18] On June 19, 2013, the Court issued an order dismissing certain claims and defendants named in the Amended Complaint. That order stated that only one claim had been adequately pled in the Amended Complaint: " the claim asserting constitutional violations of Mr. Lawson's right to be free from an illegal home entry and an illegal search and seizure." [19] The order explained that Mr. Lawson could pursue that claim on the basis of the Amended Complaint " against the appropriate, individually participating officers," or he could file a Second Amended Complaint.[20]

         Mr. Lawson filed a Second Amended Complaint (" SAC" ) on September 3, 2013.[21] The SAC contains two causes of action: (1) violation of Mr. Lawson's Fourth Amendment right " to not be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure," and (2) violation of Mr. Lawson's Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. The SAC names Anchorage police officers Jeffery Gregg and Monique Doll, as well as DEA agents Michael Dahlstrom, Nathaniel Clementson, and Richard F. Youngblood, as Defendants.

         The SAC alleges that on July 14, 2010, at approximately 3:45 p.m., Mr. Lawson was unlawfully arrested while standing on his back porch. The SAC alleges that law enforcement then conducted a " warrantless" search of Mr. Lawson's home and seized property within the home, including the shotgun that was used as evidence in Mr. Lawson's criminal case.[22] The SAC alleges that prior to Mr. Lawson's arrest, he " was not a person of interest of any investigation," and law enforcement " did not even know [his] name." [23] The SAC asserts that Mr. Lawson's arrest and the subsequent search of his home and seizure of evidence were unlawful. The SAC also asserts that Mr. Lawson's indictment was " a direct result of the unlawful arrest, search and seizure" and therefore violative of his due process rights. The SAC requests $100,000 in compensatory damages, $1,000,000 in punitive damages, " [a]n order requiring defendant(s) to possess a valid warrant to search and or seize people or property 'before' they enter a home or arrest a non-suspect," and " [a] declaration that it won't happen again[.]" [24]

         Defendants filed a motion to dismiss on February 27, 2014, relying on qualified immunity. The Court denied that motion by order dated August 25, 2014.[25] The order stated that the allegations in the SAC, when taken as true, alleged a violation of clearly established Fourth Amendment rights.

         Mr. Lawson filed the current Motion for Summary Judgment on June 1, 2015. He asserts that the Ninth Circuit's memorandum decision in the criminal case demonstrates that he had clearly established Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights, which Defendants violated. Mr. Lawson maintains that there were no exigent circumstances to allow a warrantless arrest, and he assets that Defendants' application for a second warrant is evidence that they knew the first warrant was invalid.[26] Defendants opposed on June 29, 2015,[27] and Mr. Lawson replied on July 13, 2015.[28]

         Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss Based on Qualified Immunity on August 10, 2015.[29] Defendants have attached supporting documentation to their motion to dismiss, so the Court will treat it as a motion for summary judgment.[30] Defendants assert that a reasonable officer would not have known he was violating clearly established law by reading the triggering conditions broadly. And they assert that they were reasonable in relying on exigent circumstances after the beeper malfunctioned and Mr. Lawson's co-defendant informed them that there were people in the home. Plaintiff opposed on August 24, 2015,[31] and Defendants replied on September 8, 2015.[32]


         I. Jurisdiction.

         The Court has jurisdiction over Mr. Lawson's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim pursuant to its 28 U.S.C. § 1331 federal question jurisdiction.

         II. Summary Judgment Standard.

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) directs a court to " 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." When considering a motion for summary judgment, a court must accept as true all evidence presented by the non-moving party and draw " all justifiable inferences" in the non-moving party's favor.[33] The burden of showing the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact initially lies with the moving party.[34] If the moving party meets this burden, the non-moving party must present specific evidence demonstrating the existence of a genuine issue of fact.[35] The non-moving party may not rely on mere allegations or denials. To reach the level of a genuine dispute, the evidence must be such " that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non[-]moving party." [36] If the evidence provided by the non-moving party is " merely colorable" or " not significantly probative," summary judgment to the moving party is appropriate.[37]

         III. Qualified Immunity.

         " The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials 'from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'" [38] The purpose of qualified immunity is to " balance[] two important interests--the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably." [39]

         Government officials are not entitled to qualified immunity if (1) the facts taken in the light most favorable to plaintiff show the officials' conduct violated a constitutional right, and (2) that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation.[40] A plaintiff must establish both prongs of the analysis, so that if a court determines that one prong is not met, then qualified immunity applies. The Supreme Court has " stressed the importance of resolving immunity questions at the earliest possible stage in litigation." [41] And the Ninth Circuit has held that summary judgment is appropriate when " the material, historical facts are not in dispute, and the only disputes involve what inferences properly may be drawn from those historical facts." [42]

         " For a constitutional right to be clearly established, its contours 'must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.'" [43] The Ninth Circuit has held that " [e]ven absent probable cause, qualified immunity is available if a reasonable police officer could have believed that his or her conduct was lawful, in light of the clearly established law and the information the searching officers possessed." [44] " Qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments, and protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." [45]

         These principles were applied in Pearson v. Callahan .[46] In that case, Callahan was convicted of unlawful possession and distribution of methamphetamine after a search of his home. On appeal the search was held unconstitutional and Callahan's conviction was overturned.[47] Callahan then brought a § 1983 action against the police officers who had performed the search. But the United States Supreme Court held that even though Callahan's constitutional rights had been violated, the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because " it was not clearly established at the time of the search that their conduct was unconstitutional." [48] The Court ruled that the inquiry " turn[ed] on the 'objective legal reasonableness of the action, assessed in light of the legal rules that were clearly established at the time it was taken.'" [49] The Court held that although the " consent-once-removed" doctrine the officers relied on had not been adopted in their circuit, it had " gained acceptance in the lower courts" and the officers were entitled to rely on it.[50] Therefore, it could not have been clearly established that by relying on the " consent-once-removed" doctrine the officers were violating Callahan's rights.

         IV. Analysis.

         The Ninth Circuit has held that Defendants' search of Mr. Lawson's residence violated his constitutional rights. Accordingly, with regard to the search, this Court is only required to determine whether Mr. Lawson has presented sufficient facts to demonstrate a triable issue regarding whether Mr. Lawson's right to be free of an unreasonable search based on the facts then present was clearly established at the time of the violation.

         The Ninth Circuit did not consider the constitutionality of Mr. Lawson's warrantless arrest.[51] Thus, qualified immunity for the arrest is appropriate if Defendants prove either that the arrest was constitutional or that a reasonable officer would not have known he was violating Mr. Lawson's constitutional rights in making the arrest.

         A. Mr. Lawson's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         Mr. Lawson leans heavily on the Ninth Circuit's memorandum decision holding that the search was performed unlawfully. He asserts that " the [Fourth] [A]mendment of the Constitution had been clearly established." Mr. Lawson also asserts that there has been a clear violation of his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights.[52]

         Although Mr. Lawson is correct that Defendants violated his Fourth Amendment rights, that is only one part of the question that the Court must answer. Government officials may be shielded by qualified immunity so long as their mistaken actions were reasonable, as explained above. As in Pearson, a court of appeals may find a constitutional violation but the officers may still be entitled to qualified immunity so long as they satisfy the second prong of the test.

         Mr. Lawson's motion argues that the Fourth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment were " clearly established" at the time of the search and seizure, but he reads the test too broadly. The United States Supreme Court has held that a court should " not . . . define clearly established law at a high level of generality." [53] " Qualified immunity is no immunity at all if 'clearly established' law can simply be defined as the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures." [54] Thus, Mr. Lawson's arguments based on the Ninth Circuit's decision do not end the Court's analysis.[55] Mr. Lawson has not demonstrated that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on his claims.

         B. Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Based on Qualified Immunity.

         Defendants assert that they are entitled to qualified immunity because they reasonably could have believed they were acting lawfully. They assert that the Fourth Amendment does not require triggering conditions to be listed on the warrant's face, so presumably it was not clearly established that they needed to precisely follow the wording of any such conditions. And they contend that based on the warrant's language, they could have reasonably believed that the triggering conditions were satisfied by either delivery of the package to the Stella Place home or by the beeper malfunction. Alternatively, Defendants argue that they were acting in accordance with established exigent circumstances case law because the evidence could have been easily disposed of. Finally, they argue the warrantless arrest did not violate Mr. Lawson's constitutional rights under the first prong of the immunity test because the officers had probable cause to make a warrantless arrest.[56]

         Both parties cite to United States v. Grubbs.[57] In Grubbs, the Supreme Court considered whether anticipatory warrants were categorically unconstitutional and whether the triggering conditions for an anticipatory warrant needed to be included on the face of the warrant. The Court answered both questions in the negative. It held that a triggering condition listed in the warrant affidavit--that the parcel be received by a person and taken inside--did not need to be duplicated on the face of the warrant. It reached this ...

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