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Gover v. Muravchick

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

September 20, 2018

JUSTIN MURAVCHICK, et al., Defendants.



         Lexington Police Department Officers Justin Muravchick and Brian Cobb, [1] in their individual capacities, moved for summary judgment. DE #24 (Motion). Dallas Gover opposed. DE #28 (Response). Defendants replied. DE #31 (Reply). For the following reasons, the Court fully GRANTS Defendants summary judgment. Qualified immunity shields each officer from every claim.

         I. BACKGROUND[2]

         On the evening of June 23, 2016, Officers Muravchick and Cobb, of the LPD, conducted a traffic stop of Gover. DE #25-1 (Gover Depo.), at 21-22. Plaintiff thought the stop was “for an expired registration plate.” DE #1, at ¶ 8; see also DE #25-1, at 22 (“Were you aware that your registration was improper? I was. Did you think that was the reason they were pulling you over? I did.”). Muravchick confirmed this. DE #27-1 (Muravchick Depo.), at 19, 23. After Gover pulled over, Muravchick approached the driver's window; Cobb stayed behind the truck cab, at the pillar on the passenger side. DE #25-1, at 22-23; see also DE #26-1 (Cobb Depo.), at 18-19. After Gover showed Muravchick his license and insurance, Muravchick started back toward the police car, but “was stopped by Cobb.” DE #25-1, at 24. The officers “had a conversation that [Gover] couldn't hear.” Id. Cobb stated that, in this conversation, he “advised” Muravchick “to pull Mr. Gover out of the vehicle.” DE #26-1, at 23. Muravchick said that Cobb “alert[ed]” him that he (Cobb) thought Gover was “destroying something” and “smashing a substance on the floorboard.” DE #27-1, at 36-37. Gover denies using his “foot to attempt to grind anything into the floorboard or mat[.]” DE #28-7 (Gover Affidavit), at ¶ 5.

         Following this conversation, according to Gover, Muravchick “turned back around, approached the driver's door, and he asked if it would be okay for them to search my vehicle.” DE #25-1, at 25. Gover did not give consent-he “asked what for”-and the situation began to escalate. Id. Gover eventually exited the vehicle, and Cobb “asked what did you do with the cocaine[?]” Id. at 25-26. Plaintiff “had no idea what he was talking about.” Id. at 26. While the driver's door was open, Cobb viewed material on the driver's floorboard that he, utilizing his training and experience, suspected to be crack cocaine. DE #26-1, at 25-27.

         Muravchick kept Gover “up against the backside of my tail bed, ” and Cobb began searching the vehicle, lifting the driver's side floor mat. DE #25-1, at 26. Muravchick patted Gover down and “led [him] to a curb directly behind [his] truck for [him] to sit down.” Id. at 27. Cobb, according to Gover, kept “searching” his truck-specifically the “the driver's side, the floorboard.” Id. During this process, Gover learned the allegation that “Cobb had seen me throw cocaine in the floor and stomp on it.” Id. at 28; see also DE #26-1, at 20 (Cobb agreeing that he saw “Gover grinding his heel into the carpet on the floorboard”). Gover could not recall, in deposition, if he had been moving his knee, DE #25-1, at 28, and he later swore (as the Court already partially recounted) that he “never used my foot to attempt to grind anything into the floorboard or mat on my floorboard during any point on the night of my arrest” and that he “never made any movements with my foot that would be interpreted to be grinding anything into the floorboard of my truck.” DE #28-7, at ¶¶ 5-6.

         Gover eventually learned that Cobb “scraped” material from the floorboard and field-tested it. DE #25-1, at 29-30. Gover “knew” this material actually was “doughnut icing” from doughnuts he purchased “two Sundays prior to the incident” from “Kroger bakery, ” not cocaine. Id. at 30. Cobb described seeing two different substances in two different locations in the floorboard: “There was a little crushed up white rock and powder right where Mr. Gover's heel was, back away from the gas pedal towards the seat, and then there was also another white substance, powdery, on the floor closer to the gas pedal.” DE #26-1, at 25-26. Despite Gover's confidence that the material was doughnut icing, one field test came back positive for cocaine. DE #25-1, at 32. Another field test, though, was negative for controlled substances. DE #26-1, at 29-30.

         After the positive field test, according to Plaintiff, “they continued to search my truck, ” while Gover remained on the curb, not yet under arrest. DE #25-1, at 32-33. “They” continued to search “for an extended period of time.” Id. at 33. Muravchick confirmed that he searched the truck “after [Gover] was under arrest or at some point during the arrest[.]” DE #27-1, at 32-34. After the search(es) concluded, Muravchick arrested Gover. DE #25-1, at 33.

         Based on these occurrences, Kentucky levied several criminal charges against Gover, to wit, no/expired registration plate, tampering with physical evidence, and possession of controlled substance (cocaine) 1st offense. See DE #24-4, at 1. Gover posted bond and was released the next day, June 24, 2016. See Id. at 1-2; DE #25-1, at 42 (Gover confirming he was “in custody for 22 hours”).

         The Commonwealth eventually dismissed all charges without prejudice, [3] and Gover later initiated this suit, asserting four claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983[4] and the United States Constitution: (1) unconstitutional arrest and imprisonment, (2) unconstitutional pretrial detention, (3) malicious prosecution, and (4) unconstitutional search. The parties have litigated the case, and Defendants' summary judgment motion is fully briefed and ripe for consideration.

         II. STANDARD

         A court “shall 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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A reviewing court must construe the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences from the underlying facts in favor of the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec., 106 S.Ct. at 1356; Lindsay v. Yates, 578 F.3d 407, 414 (6th Cir. 2009). Additionally, the court may not “weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter” at the summary judgment stage. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2511 (1986).

         The burden of establishing the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact initially rests with the moving party. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553 (1986) (requiring the moving party to set forth “the basis for its motion, and identify[] those portions of ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate an absence of a genuine issue of material fact”); Lindsay, 578 F.3d at 414 (“The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing that there is no material issue in dispute.”). If the moving party meets its burden, the burden then shifts to the nonmoving party to produce “specific facts” showing a “genuine issue” for trial. Celotex Corp., 106. S.Ct. at 2253; Bass v. Robinson, 167 F.3d 1041, 1044 (6th Cir. 1999). However, “Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment . . . against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp., 106 S.Ct. at 2552; see also Id. at 2557 (Brennan, J., dissenting) (“If the burden of persuasion at trial would be on the non-moving party, the party moving for summary judgment may satisfy Rule 56's burden of production in either of two ways. First, the moving party may submit affirmative evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim. Second, the moving party may demonstrate to the Court that the nonmoving party's evidence is insufficient to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim.” (emphasis in original)).

         A fact is “material” if the underlying substantive law identifies the fact as critical. Anderson, 106 S.Ct. at 2510. Thus, “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted.” Id. A “genuine” issue exists if “there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.” Id. at 2511; Matsushita Elec., 106 S.Ct. at 1356 (“Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial.'”) (citation omitted). Such evidence must be suitable for admission into evidence at trial. Salt Lick Bancorp v. FDIC, 187 Fed.Appx. 428, 444-45 (6th Cir. 2006).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Defendants primarily argue that qualified immunity protects them from Gover's claims. See DE #24, at 7-16. “[G]overnment officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded 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.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2738 (1982); see also, e.g., Robertson v. Lucas, 753 F.3d 606, 610 (6th Cir. 2014) (affirming grant of qualified immunity to state and federal law enforcement officers); Barnes v. Wright, 449 F.3d 709, 711 (6th Cir. 2006) (reversing the denial of qualified immunity to law enforcement officers in a § 1983 suit).

         “Since the defendant officers have raised the qualified immunity defense, plaintiff bears the burden of showing that defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity.” Johnson v. Moseley, 790 F.3d 649, 653 (6th Cir. 2015). In the summary judgment context, the Court “view[s] all evidence, and draw[s] all reasonable inferences, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, ” Gover. Kent v. Oakland Cnty., 810 F.3d 384, 390 (6th Cir. 2016) (internal alteration removed).

         To evaluate the qualified immunity question, courts engage in a two-part inquiry: “First, taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, do the facts alleged show that the [official]'s conduct violated a constitutional right? Second, is the right clearly established?” Silberstein v. City of Dayton, 440 F.3d 306, 311 (6th Cir. 2006); see also Pearson v. Callahan, 129 S.Ct. 808, 818 (2009) (holding that courts may address the two questions in either order). The right must be “so clearly established in a particularized sense that a reasonable officer confronted with the same situation would have known that his conduct violated that right.” Moseley, 790 F.3d at 653. The Court must avoid “a high level of generality” in assessing the clarity of the right or misconduct. Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308 (2015) (per curiam) (“The dispositive question is whether the violative nature of particular conduct is clearly established. . . . This inquiry must be undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition.” (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing Brosseau v. Haugen, 125 S.Ct. 596 (2004))). “Clearly established means that, at the time of the officer's conduct, the law was sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would understand that what he is doing is unlawful. In other words, existing law must have placed the constitutionality of the officer's conduct beyond debate. This demanding standard protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Dist. of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S.Ct. 577, 589 (2018) (internal quotation marks and citations removed).

         Gover tells the Court that all the claims in this case “are predicated on a violation of the Fourth Amendment.” DE #28, at 8. The Court evaluates each Count in turn.

         Wrongful Arrest

         “An arresting agent is entitled to qualified immunity if he or she could reasonably (even if erroneously) have believed that the arrest was lawful, in light of clearly established law and the information possessed at the time by the arresting agent.” Kennedy v. City of Villa Hills, 635 F.3d 210, 214 (6th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks and alteration removed). “Thus, even if a factual dispute exists about the objective reasonableness of the officer's actions, a court should grant the officer qualified immunity if, viewing the facts favorably to the plaintiff, an officer reasonably could have believed that the arrest was lawful.” Id. The Circuit has elaborated:

In order for a wrongful arrest claim to succeed under § 1983, a plaintiff must prove that the police lacked probable cause. Painter v. Robertson, 185 F.3d 557, 569 (6th Cir. 1999). A police officer has probable cause if there is a “‘fair probability'” that the individual to be arrested has either committed or intends to commit a crime. Northrop v. Trippett, 265 F.3d 372, 379 (6th Cir. 2001) (quoting United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7, 109 S.Ct. 1581, 104 L.Ed.2d 1 (1989)), cert. denied, 535 U.S. 955, 122 S.Ct. 1358, 152 L.Ed.2d 354 (2002). A police officer determines the existence of probable cause by examining the facts and circumstances within his knowledge that are sufficient to inform “a prudent person, or one of reasonable ...

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