United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
LOUISE W. FLANAGAN, District Judge.
This matter comes before the court on defendants' motion for summary judgment (DE 58). Plaintiffs have responded in opposition, and defendants replied. In this posture, issues raised are ripe for ruling. For the reasons given below, the court grants the motion.
STATEMENT OF THE CASE
On July 30, 2010, plaintiffs Samuel Wallace ("Wallace"), Mark Jones ("Jones"), and Jimmy Taylor ("Taylor") initiated this action by complaint filed in Cumberland County Superior Court against the Town of Spring Lake ("Spring Lake"), as well as Sergeant Alonzo Whittington ("Whittington, " no longer a party) and Sergeant Darryl Coulter, Sr. ("Coulter") - both formerly officers with the Spring Lake Police Department ("SLPD"). Defendants removed the action to this court on September 2, 2010. Plaintiffs allege that on April 27, 2008, they were forced at gunpoint from a residence located at 427 Vass Road in Spring Lake, North Carolina, handcuffed, and made to lie on the ground for several hours in the rain while SLPD officers searched their house without warrant or probable cause. Plaintiffs assert the following claims for relief (1) "Respondeat Superior, " (2) "42 U.S.C. § 1983, " (3) "Negligence-City of Raleigh [sic] of Spring Lake, " (4) "False Imprisonment, " (5) "Assault [and Battery], " and (6) "Trespass." Compl. 4, 5, 7, 8.
At telephonic pretrial conference held on November 19, 2010, plaintiffs moved to dismiss Whittington without prejudice, and the court granted such motion. At said conference, the parties also discussed the fact that defendant Coulter had been charged in state court with various criminal offenses arising out of the April 27, 2008, events at issue in this case. On October 29, 2012, defendants moved for leave to modify this court's case management order and to stay trial where the state criminal case had not yet been adjudicated. The court granted the motion on November 9, 2012. Adjudication of defendant Coulter's criminal case was delayed, and defendants filed a motion to continue stay on March 22, 2013, which the court granted by order entered March 26, 2013, extending also the discovery deadline to July 31, 2013.
On August 22, 2013, in response to a court order, the parties filed a joint status report informing that all criminal charges previously pending against defendant Coulter had been dismissed, and requesting a dispositive deadlines motion of October 4, 2013. Such request was granted by text order entered August 29, 2013. Defendants later moved to extended the dispositive motions deadline to November 8, 2013, (DE 56), which motion the court granted by order entered October 1, 2013. Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment on November 8, 2013, arguing that defendant Coulter acted at all times with probable cause, and is further entitled to qualified immunity. Defendants also contend that all claims against defendant Spring Lake fail as a matter of law, and that plaintiffs are not entitled to punitive damages.
STATEMENT OF FACTS
The undisputed facts of this case are as follows. On April 27, 2008, at approximately 5:53 p.m., the SLPD received a call from an individual stating that shots were fired inside 427 Vass Road. Craddock Dep. 20, 32-33 (DE 59-1). The caller further stated that police needed to respond immediately. Id. at 20. The caller did not provide her name or telephone number. Id . The dispatcher sent a dispatch to all units on call advising them that there was a report of shots fired at 427 Vass Road. Id. at 22-23.
Defendant Coulter was one of the officers who received that dispatch, and advised he was en route. Coulter Dep. 59 (DE 59-2). Defendant Coulter was familiar with the residence as a result of numerous complaints regarding drug activity the SLPD had received about that address. Id. at 47. Defendant Coulter instructed the responding officers - Officers Singletary, Sutton, and Harris - to have a staging meeting at the intersection of Vass Road and North Bragg Boulevard so that defendant Coulter could brief them and advise as to next steps. Id. at 61, 63. He did so because ninety-three (93) percent of calls the SLPD responded to regarding a shooting incident involved at least one gunshot victim. Id. at 62-63. Defendant Coulter told the other officers about the previous complaints received regarding this residence, and that someone was possibly shot therein. Id. at 63.
When the officers arrived at 427 Vass Road, they split up looking around the outside of the residence for, among other things, blood. Id. at 67-69. Officer Singletary went to the left side of the home, officers Harris and Sutton went to the right side. Id. at 66. Defendant Coulter went to the front of the residence. Id . The officers found no blood, ammunition, or evidence of drugs outside of the residence. Id. at 68-69. Defendant Coulter smelled neither gunshot residue nor marijuana at this time. Id . Defendant Coulter knocked on the front door and identified himself as an officer with the SLPD. Id. at 70. Defendant Coulter could hear what sounded like people running back and forth inside the house, and furniture being moved or turned over. He also heard whispering and saw people peeping through the windows. Id. at 69-70. This activity was consistent with what often took place when Coulter approached a residence involved with criminal activity. Id.
Here the parties' accounts diverge. According to defendants, defendant Coulter was knocking for twenty (20) to thirty (30) minutes with no response. Id. at 71-74. He first knocked on the front door for five to six minutes, then went to the back door, and again knocked and identified himself as an SLPD officer for some time. Id. at 71. The owner of the residence, Mrs. Lula Isaac ("Isaac") then arrived. Id. at 76-77. After defendant Coulter explained to her that police were responding to a reported shooting incident and wanted to enter to determine if anyone was hurt, Isaac gave both verbal and written consent for police to enter. Id. at 77. Defendant Coulter returned to the door of the residence once more and knocked, at which time plaintiffs came out. Id. at 77-78. Thereupon, officers handcuffed plaintiffs, and defendant Coulter and Officer Harris performed a sweep of the house. Id. at 80-81, 100.
Plaintiffs' account differs. Plaintiffs assert that immediately upon hearing defendant Coulter knocking, they went to the door to talk to defendant Coulter to figure out what was going on. Wallace Dep. 105 (DE 59-4); Jones Dep 60 (DE 59-5); Taylor Dep. 101 (DE 59-3). Defendant Coulter demanded that plaintiffs open the door, claiming he had a search warrant although, looking through the peep hole, plaintiffs could see that he did not. Wallace Dep. 105; Taylor Dep. 101. Defendant Coulter broke the peep hole that plaintiffs were looking through with his flashlight. Wallace Dep. 105; Taylor Dep. 105. He continued beating on doors trying to get into the house, and was acting angry. Wallace Dep. 111; Jones Dep. 61. Plaintiffs were afraid to open the door because of defendant Coulter's behavior. Wallace Dep. 111. Defendant Coulter moved around the house beating on doors and twisting doorknobs trying to get in. Id. at 115. When defendant Coulter was at the back door, plaintiffs asked him if it would be safe for them to come outside, and he responded it would. Id. at 116; Taylor Dep. 107. Plaintiffs opened the back door, and defendant Coulter grabbed them one by one and threw them out of the house at gunpoint. Wallace Dep. 119; Jones Dep. 67. Officers handcuffed plaintiffs. Wallace Dep. 120; Jones Dep. 67-68. Defendant Coulter then went and searched the residence without permission. Wallace Dep. 126; Taylor Dep. 126.
It is undisputed that at some time before the police arrived, plaintiffs had been smoking marijuana in the residence. Wallace Dep. 103-04; Taylor Dep. 99-100; Jones Dep 58. It is also undisputed that when plaintiffs opened the door to come out of the house, defendant Coulter could smell the odor of marijuana. Coulter Dep. 78. Plaintiffs did not seek any medical treatment as a result of this encounter. Wallace Dep. 122; Taylor Dep. 128; Jones Dep. 68. Officers discovered a gun in the house. Coulter Dep. 79. A weapons check showed it was stolen in Fayetteville. Id. at 102. At this time, the SLPD was required to contact the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department to conduct any felony investigations. Coulter Dep. 102-03. Because of this requirement, defendant Coulter contacted the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department, and froze the scene until their arrival. Id.
Prior to this encounter, it is undisputed that defendant Coulter twice stopped plaintiff Wallace when plaintiff Wallace was driving. On one occasion defendant Coulter jumped out in front of plaintiff Wallace's car as he was pulling onto the road from a friend's residence and then asked him a number of questions which plaintiff Wallace answered. Wallace Dep. 79-81. Defendant Coulter then told plaintiff Wallace that he did not want to see plaintiff Wallace around the area anymore. Id . On the other occasion, defendant Coulter stopped plaintiff Wallace, but as defendant Coulter approached the car and saw who it was, he apologized and said he had pulled over the wrong person. Id. at 84.
A. Standard of Review
Summary judgment is appropriate where "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); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby , 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (holding that a factual dispute is "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the suit and "genuine" only if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party). The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the moving party has met its burden, the nonmoving party then must affirmatively ...