James Robertson v. Todd Elliott

Filing 920090306


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UNPUBLISHED UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT No. 08-1839 JAMES ROBERTSON; JERRY MARCUM; LANDON HATFIELD; ROBERT LEE EVANS; SHAWN CHRISTOPHER COOK; WILLIAM LUCAS; SHANNON HATFIELD, Plaintiffs - Appellees, and SOFIA ROBERTSON, Plaintiff, v. TODD ELLIOTT, in his individual and official capacity as a police officer for the Wayne County Sheriff's Department; DAVE PENNINGTON, in his official capacity as the Sheriff of Wayne County, Defendants ­ Appellants, and REX VARNEY, in his individual and official capacity as lead investigator for the Wayne County Sheriff's Department, Defendant. Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, at Huntington. Robert C. Chambers, District Judge. (3:05-cv-00777; 3:06-cv-00374; 3:06-cv-00375; 3:06-cv-00377; 3:06-cv-00378; 3:06-cv-00379; 3:06-cv-00376) Argued: January 28, 2009 Decided: March 6, 2009 Before NIEMEYER and MICHAEL, Circuit Judges, and Arthur ALARCÓN, Senior Circuit Judge of the United States Court Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, sitting by designation. L. of Reversed and remanded by unpublished per curiam opinion. ARGUED: Jason Eric Wandling, SHUMAN, MCCUSKEY & SLICER, P.L.L.C., Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellants. Lonnie Carl Simmons, DITRAPANO, BARRETT & DIPIERO, P.L.L.C., Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: John F. McCuskey, Dwayne E. Cyrus, SHUMAN, MCCUSKEY & SLICER, P.L.L.C., Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellants. Heather M. Langeland, DITRAPANO, BARRETT & DIPIERO, P.L.L.C., Charleston, West Virginia; Roger D. Forman, Jason E. Huber, Jonathan L. Matthews, FORMAN & HUBER, L.C., Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellees. Unpublished opinions are not binding precedent in this circuit. 2 PER CURIAM: The seven plaintiffs in this case were arrested and indicted on drug charges in Wayne County, West Virginia, on the basis of evidence fabricated by a confidential informant. The plaintiffs sued the Wayne County Sheriff's Department, Sheriff David Pennington, and Chief Field Deputy (Chief Deputy) Todd Elliott, asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law. Sheriff Pennington and Chief Deputy Elliot were sued in both their individual and official capacities. The Sheriff and the Chief Deputy appeal the district court's denial of their motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. We reverse, concluding that these two defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on the § 1983 claims brought against them in their individual capacities. I. We take the facts as assumed by the district court, which considered the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving parties (here, the plaintiffs). 249 F.3d 279, 285 n.2 (4th Cir. 2001). Rogers v. Pendleton, Wayne County deputy sheriffs arrested Thomas Osborne in Fort Gay, West Virginia, on May 9, 2003, for writing worthless checks. his arrest, Osborne offered to assist Immediately after law enforcement by participating in drug transactions as a confidential informant. 3 The arresting deputies contacted Chief Deputy Elliott, who in turn contacted Sheriff Pennington, for authorization to use Osborne as a confidential informant. With Sheriff Pennington's approval, Chief Deputy Elliot took Osborne to a local sports bar to make two controlled drug purchases (or "drug buys") that same night. confirmed Forensic the laboratory of results cocaine conducted and months in later the presence Hydrocodone substances that Osborne purchased in those initial transactions. Following these initial transactions, Chief Deputy Elliot and other Wayne County deputies asked Osborne to assist in approximately thirty-one In additional order to drug buys as a the confidential informant. profit from arrangement, Osborne faked many of the purchases. Prior to a transaction he would hide a baking soda mixture in a baggie in a compartment cut in the sole of one of his sandals. He would then approach an individual (whom he typically chose at random) and act as though he was purchasing drugs. Before returning to the police, he would replace the baking soda mixture in his shoe with the cash he received from the deputies. deliver the baking soda mixture fake to the He would then In which some he deputies. in instances Osborne recorded conversations changed his voice to imitate the individuals he implicated and gave those recordings to the deputies. kept from the fake purchases to 4 buy Osborne used the cash he OxyContin, a controlled substance. The district court recounted how the deputies dealt with Osborne and what the consequences of his fabrications were: Although Deputy Elliot and others acknowledged the importance of searching a confidential informant, both before and after a drug transaction, it is clear that Osborne was seldom, if ever, subject to a thorough check. Osborne was frequently allowed to use his own vehicle during the buys. (On one occasion his mother even accompanied him on the buy.) Although Osborne's sheer number of contacts alone might have indicated that he was a habitual user of illegal drugs, deputies never tested him. (Osborne himself testified that he was probably high during many, if not most, of these transactions.) Osborne also selected the targets of these transactions on his own. It is not clear how often (if at all) officers conducted field tests to confirm the presence of drugs. While the sheriff's deputies clearly did not take all possible precautions in the use of Osborne as an informant, the department did . . . undertake some measures to validate the buys. A check of Osborne's criminal record in West Virginia and Kentucky, though perhaps cursory, was conducted before any of the transactions took place. Osborne wore a wire during at least some buys. Deputies obtained warrants for each arrest and every suspect -- including each of the plaintiffs -- was indicted by a Wayne County grand jury. The Wayne County Prosecutor, Jim Young, had some oversight . . . . J.A. 839-40. There is no suggestion that Sheriff Pennington, Chief Deputy Elliott, or any deputy or investigator in fact knew that Osborne was faking the drug buys. As a result of the fabricated evidence, twenty-nine individuals, including each of the plaintiffs, were arrested and indicted. Because of a backlog at the forensic laboratory used by the Wayne County Sheriff's Department, the substances Osborne 5 delivered to the deputies were not tested until trial dates were set for the individuals implicated by Osborne. forensic that the results finally did become by available, were But when the they not revealed in fact substances delivered Osborne controlled substances. dismissed all charges The Wayne County prosecutor ultimately against the plaintiffs and other individuals inculpated by evidence gathered through Osborne. The plaintiffs in this appeal, whose claims the district court consolidated, were arrested and indicted as a result of the evidence falsified by Osborne. against the Wayne Chief County Sheriff's and They filed suit Sheriff or Department, several Pennington, Deputy Elliot, deputies investigators who have since been dismissed. allege violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the The plaintiffs West Virginia Sheriff their Chief bases, by the constitution and assert several claims under state law. Pennington individual Deputy and and Chief Deputy Elliot were The sued in both and official moved for capacities. summary The Sheriff on was Elliott judgment motion several denied including qualified immunity. district court. Sheriff Pennington and Chief Deputy Elliott appeal the denial of qualified immunity. 6 II. We have jurisdiction to review a district court's denial of a claim of qualified immunity to the extent the ruling turns on a question of law. Henry v. Purnell, 501 F.3d 374, 376 (4th Cir. 2007); Winfield v. Bass, 106 F.3d 525, 529 (4th Cir. 1997) (en banc). Our review of the denial of qualified immunity is de novo, but we take as true the facts that the district court "deemed sufficiently supported for purposes of summary judgment." Rogers, 249 F.3d at 285 & n.2 (quoting Behrens v. Where the district court Pelletier, 516 U.S. 299, 313 (1996)). is not explicit, we may review the record "to determine what facts the district court, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, likely assumed." Id. (quoting Behrens, 516 U.S. at 313); see also Valladares v. Cordero, 552 F.3d 384, 389 (4th Cir. 2009). III. In evaluating claims of qualified immunity, we have first decided whether the facts, as taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, make out a violation of a constitutional right. Henry, 501 F.3d at 377. If this first step has been satisfied, we have then decided whether the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the alleged misconduct. See id.; see also Pearson v. Callahan, No. 07-751, 7 slip. op. at 6, 10-11 (U.S. Jan. 21, 2009) (noting that this two-step sequence is no longer mandatory, but is often appropriate and beneficial). In denying qualified immunity here, the district court concluded that there was a material factual dispute about whether the Sheriff and Chief Deputy Elliott were responsible for a custom of deliberate v. indifference No. to conduct such as Osborne's. Robertson Pennington, 3:05-cv-0777 (S.D. W. Va. July 18, 2008). The district court invoked the framework applicable to government entity and official capacity liability, holding that "a jury could fairly conclude that the Wayne County Sheriff's themselves Department, were Sheriff Pennington, for and Deputy Elliot responsible violating plaintiffs' constitutional right not to be deprived of liberty as the result of fabricated evidence." Robertson, No. 3:05-cv-077, slip op. at 10; see also Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658, 690-91 (1978) (indicating that government entities may be liable for unconstitutional policies or customs); Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-66 (1985) (noting that official capacity claims require plaintiff to prove a policy or custom under Monell). (or The Monell framework applicable bears to on government entity official capacity) liability whether a government entity is sufficiently responsible for a constitutional deprivation to hold 8 the entity liable under § 1983; Monell does not bear on whether there has been a constitutional deprivation in the first place. Here, it is appropriate for us to begin by considering the question of whether the plaintiffs have shown a violation of a constitutional right. 10-11. See Pearson v. Callahan, slip op. at The plaintiffs argue that they were unconstitutionally deprived of their liberty as the result of fabricated evidence. We have recognized a constitutional right "not to be deprived of liberty as a result of the in F.3d fabrication an of evidence by a government Washington officer v. acting 407 investigative 282 (4th capacity." Cir. 2005) Wilmore, 274, (emphasis added) (internal quotation omitted). In the present case, however, the confidential informant (Osborne) rather than a government officer created false evidence. as viewed by the district in that that court nor any most Neither the facts allegations favorable or Chief in to the the record (even taken the light defendants) Elliott suggest Sheriff Osborne Pennington fabricate Deputy or had intended evidence knowledge that Osborne fabricated the evidence used to arrest and indict the plaintiffs. The facts as recounted by the district court are also inadequate to suggest that Pennington and Elliot were reckless with respect to the falsity of the evidence offered by Osborne. The district court noted that 9 the deputies did take some precautions to validate Osborne's actions. cv-077, slip op. at 3. Robertson, No. 3:05- They checked Osborne's criminal record before any transactions took place, required him to wear a wire during some of the buys, and submitted the substances he turned in for forensic testing. enforcement precautions Id. by Osborne was able to bypass law concealing substances in a compartment in his sandal. Id. at 4. Because the plaintiffs' allegations do not suffice to establish recklessness, we need not decide whether the Constitution affords the plaintiffs a right against a government officer's recklessness with respect to false or fabricated evidence. F.2d 573, 578 (4th Cir. 1986) See Justice v. Dennis, 793 (noting that recklessness and gross negligence may be sufficient for some claims under the due process clause). At bottom, the plaintiffs argue that the Sheriff and his deputies failed to act as reasonable police officers in using Osborne as a confidential informant. To succeed on this claim, the plaintiffs would have to demonstrate that there is an established constitutional right not to be deprived of liberty as a result of false evidence negligently gathered by a government officer. The Supreme Court, however, has held "that the Due Process Clause is simply not implicated by a negligent act of an official causing unintended loss of or injury to life, liberty or property." Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 328 10 (1986); see also Jean v. Collins 221 F.3d 656, 660 (4th Cir. 2000) (en banc). There is no constitutional right that protects against the deprivation of liberty as a result of negligently gathered evidence. Because the facts alleged by the plaintiffs do not make out a violation of a constitutional right, Sheriff Pennington and Chief Deputy Elliott are entitled to qualified immunity. The district court erred by failing to grant summary judgment to Pennington and Elliott on those claims for which qualified immunity is an available defense, namely, the § 1983 claims asserted against them in their individual capacities. The district court's order denying qualified immunity to Sheriff Pennington and Chief Deputy Elliott is therefore reversed. district court will enter the appropriate order on remand. The REVERSED AND REMANDED 11

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