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Castaldo v. Horne

United States District Court, D. Utah, Northern Division

June 22, 2017

KARA LYNN CASTALDO, Plaintiff,
v.
OWEN HORNE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          Brooke C. Wells United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Horne's Motion for Summary Judgment.[1] Plaintiff has opposed the motion[2] and Defendant replied.[3] This Court has jurisdiction of this matter under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) as both parties have consented to have this case heard by the assigned Magistrate Judge.[4]

         Plaintiff's complaint asserts three causes of action against Officer Horne: (1) illegal expansion of a traffic stop, (2) excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and (3) excessive force and unreasonable seizure under Article I, § 14 of the Utah Constitution.[5] Plaintiff is seeking no less than $100, 000 in damages. Officer Horne is seeking summary judgment on all causes of action based on qualified immunity because Plaintiff did not suffer a constitutional violation and Officer Horne did not violate clearly established law.

         BACKGROUND

         In the early morning hours of July 18, 2015, Plaintiff was driving home from work[6] when she was pulled over by Defendant Horne. There is a dash-cam video that depicts the events that occurred that night, starting when Defendant Horne began following Plaintiff's vehicle.[7]Defendant Horne pulled Plaintiff over because she had a brake light that was not functioning. Plaintiff pulled over right after Defendant put his overhead lights on. Plaintiff did not fully roll her window down.[8] Defendant requested that Plaintiff roll her window down, and Plaintiff replied that it was rolled down. Because Plaintiff did not roll the window down any further, Defendant requested that Plaintiff exit the vehicle. Plaintiff did not exit the vehicle.

         Defendant then orders Plaintiff to exit the vehicle and explains that he would like to conduct the rest of the stop outside the vehicle. Plaintiff holds her papers sticking out of the window (her hand does not come past the rolled up window). Defendant did not take the papers. Defendant opens Plaintiff's vehicle door and explains that she can either exit the vehicle or go to jail for refusing to follow his orders. Plaintiff remained in her vehicle. Defendant orders Plaintiff out of the vehicle a number of times, and Plaintiff remained in the vehicle. Finally, Defendant reached into the vehicle, released Plaintiff's seatbelt, and started to pull Plaintiff out of the vehicle. As Defendant grabbed Plaintiff's left arm to pull her from the vehicle Plaintiff grabbed the steering wheel with her right arm. After a minor struggle, Defendant was able to remove Plaintiff from the vehicle.

         Once outside the vehicle, Defendant placed Plaintiff's wrists behind her back. He handcuffed Plaintiff behind her back and double locked the handcuffs. Plaintiff was searched incident to arrest and placed into the backseat of the patrol car. Thereafter, Defendant conducted an inventory or search of Plaintiff's vehicle[9] and Plaintiff's vehicle was towed for a hold. Plaintiff was transported to Weber County jail and booked. Plaintiff was cited for a lamp violation (Utah Code Ann. § 41-6A-1604) and interference with arresting officer (Utah Code Ann. § 76-8-305).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         “In general, summary judgment is appropriate when ‘there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'”[10] Under this standard, “we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, but that party must set forth specific facts as to those dispositive matters for which it carries the burden of proof in order to demonstrate a genuine issue for trial.”[11] “However, summary judgement decisions involving a qualified immunity defense are subject to a somewhat different analysis on review than are other summary judgment rulings.”[12]

         “When a claim of qualified immunity is raised in a defendant's motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff must show the defendant's actions violated a specific statutory or constitutional right, and ‘the constitutional or statutory rights the defendant allegedly violated were clearly established at the time of the conduct at issue.'”[13] Then “[t]he trial court decides as a matter of law whether the plaintiff's allegations, if true, state a claim for violation of a clearly established constitutional right.”[14] “‘Ordinarily, in order for the law to be clearly established, there must be a Supreme Court or Tenth Circuit decision on point, or the clearly established weight of authority from other courts must have found the law to be as the plaintiff maintains.'”[15] Thus, “[i]f the plaintiff fails to show the defendants violated a constitutional or statutory right, or that the asserted violation was clearly established under the law, the defendant is entitled to qualified immunity.”[16]

         ANALYSIS

         “The principles of qualified immunity shield an officer from personal liability when an officer reasonably believes that his or her conduct complies with the law.”[17] “If the law [does] not put the officer on notice that his conduct would be clearly unlawful, summary judgment based on qualified immunity is appropriate.”[18]

         A two prong analysis has been established to determine whether Defendant is entitled to qualified immunity. “A court must decide whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged . . . or shown . . . make out a violation of a constitutional right.”[19] The court must also “decide whether the right at issue was ‘clearly established' at the time of the defendant's alleged misconduct.”[20]The Tenth Circuit has stated that qualified immunity will “protect all but the plainly incompetent, or those who knowingly violate the law.”[21]

         A. Defendant did Not Illegally Expand the Stop

         Defendant Horne testified that when Plaintiff initially failed to obey his command to roll down her window, he “was unable to see the vehicle and maintain a tactical advantage.”[22] He further testified that he felt Plaintiff posed an immediate threat:

[Plaintiff] could have had weapons, guns, a vehicle bomb. I had no idea. All I know is that she's not behaving normally. It was an extreme, unusual circumstance and therefore it was an unknown threat. It could have been very serious to me.

         The Supreme Court acknowledged such officer safety concerns in Pennsylvania v. Mimms, [23] as they “specifically recognized the inordinate risk confronting an officer as he approaches a person seated in an automobile.”[24] The Pennsylvania Court went on to note “we have expressly declined to accept the argument that traffic violations necessarily involve less danger to officers than other types of confrontations.”[25] In carefully weighing these safety considerations, the Supreme Court found:

Against this important interest we are asked to weigh the intrusion into the driver's personal liberty occasioned not by the initial stop of the vehicle, which was admittedly justified, but by the order to get out of the car. We think this additional intrusion can only be described as de minimis. The driver is being asked to expose to view very little more of his person than is already exposed. The police have already lawfully decided that the driver shall be briefly detained; the only question is whether he shall spend that period sitting in the driver's seat of his car or standing alongside it. Not only is the insistence of the police on the latter choice not a “serious intrusion upon the sanctity of the person, ” but it hardly rises to the level of a “‘petty indignity.'” Terry v. Ohio, supra, 392 U.S. at 17, 88 S.Ct. at 1877. What is at most a mere inconvenience cannot prevail when balanced against legitimate concerns for the officer's safety.[26]

         Accordingly, this Court finds that Defendant Horne was acting lawfully and did not violate any constitutional right when he asked Plaintiff to exit her vehicle.

         B. Defendant did Not Use Excessive Force in Removing Plaintiff from Her Vehicle

         This Court also must determine whether Defendant Horne violated a constitutional right when he physically removed Plaintiff from her vehicle. “There is no doubt that Graham v. Connor[27] clearly establishes the general proposition that use of force is contrary to the Fourth Amendment if it is excessive under objective standards of reasonableness.”[28] However, “that right the official is alleged to have violated must have been ‘clearly established' in a more particularized, and hence more relevant, sense: The contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.”[29]

         The Supreme Court held in Graham, “that claims of excessive force in the context of arrests or investigatory stops should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment's ‘objective reasonableness standard, ' not under substantive due process principles.”[30] “Because ‘police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments-in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving-about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation, ' . . . the reasonableness of the officer's belief as to the appropriate level of force should be judged from that on-scene perspective.”[31]

         Graham requires “careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case, ” including the following factors “the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.”[32] However, the qualified immunity inquiry goes a step further by “acknowledge[ing] reasonable mistakes can be made as to the legal constraints on particular police conduct.”[33]

         In the case at bar, Defendant physically removed Plaintiff from her vehicle when she refused to exit the vehicle after Defendant ordered her out of the vehicle a number of times. In removing Plaintiff from the vehicle, Plaintiff resisted by holding on to the steering wheel creating a struggle for Defendant Horne to remove her. Plaintiff claims that Defendant used unlawful excessive force when he removed her from the vehicle.

         Although the severity of the initial crime of having a brake light out is relatively minor, it was Plaintiff's refusal to follow the officer's orders that escalated the stop to Defendant ordering Plaintiff out of the car. By refusing the officer's order to roll her window down further, and then refusing to exit the vehicle, Plaintiff elevated Defendant Horne's level of concern for his safety due to her perceived abnormal behavior. Based on her continued refusal to obey Defendant Horne's orders to exit the vehicle, he made the decision to physically remove Plaintiff. From the dash-cam video, it appears that any struggle in removing Plaintiff was caused by Plaintiff's ...


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