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Stokes v. Harris

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

October 14, 2014

GEORGE V. STOKES, Plaintiff,
v.
GLENN A. HARRIS and CITY OF ROCKINGHAM, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

JAMES A. BEATY, Jr., District Judge.

This matter is currently before the Court on the Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. #114] of Defendants Glenn A. Harris and City of Rockingham ("Defendants") as to pro se Plaintiff George V. Stokes's ("Plaintiff") claims regarding the actions of Defendants in arresting Plaintiff on December 8, 2008. Plaintiff's Complaint alleged that Defendant Harris physically beat Plaintiff and that Defendant Harris was not justified in any of his actions in stopping Plaintiff's vehicle, arresting Plaintiff, and searching Plaintiff's vehicle. Upon Plaintiff's requests, this Court granted Plaintiff multiple extensions to file a response to Defendants' Motion, but Plaintiff never responded. Therefore, the Motion is unopposed. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court will grant Defendants' Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The following facts are derived from Defendants' multiple affidavits, a video from Defendant Harris's patrol car, Department of Motor Vehicle ("DMV") records, and other documentation submitted with Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. #88], including a video Plaintiff presented to Defendants as part of a citizen's complaint he filed with the Rockingham Police Department prior to this action. The facts reveal that Defendant Harris stopped Plaintiff's vehicle on December 8, 2008, at approximately 9:26 A.M., due to expired registration tags, fictitious information on the license plate, and a lack of insurance. When Defendant Harris approached the vehicle, Plaintiff identified himself as George Stokes and informed Defendant Harris that he did not have a driver's license or the registration for the car. Defendant Harris returned to his patrol car with Plaintiff's identification information. Through dispatch, Defendant Harris learned that Plaintiff had outstanding arrest warrants and that Plaintiff had "displayed violent tendencies" toward police officers in the past. (Harris Aff. at 2 [Doc. #88-1].) He was accordingly advised to proceed with caution. Based on the outstanding arrest warrants, Defendant Harris decided to arrest Plaintiff, but waited for backup to arrive due to the warnings he received about Plaintiff's past history of violent conduct.

Once Officer Cheyenne Revels arrived, the officers approached Plaintiff's vehicle, issued several traffic violations, and informed Plaintiff he was under arrest due to the outstanding arrest warrants. Plaintiff acted in an agitated and uncooperative manner by refusing to exit the car and threatening to drive away from the scene. After Defendant Harris removed Plaintiff's keys from the ignition to prevent such an occurrence, Plaintiff reluctantly exited the vehicle. Defendant Harris and Officer Revels then attempted to frisk Plaintiff for weapons, but Plaintiff refused to comply and resisted being handcuffed by repeatedly removing his hands from the top of the vehicle and struggling with the officers. Defendant Harris then forced Plaintiff to the ground but was still unable to gain control over Plaintiff. As a result of the continued struggle, Officer Revels used a taser on Plaintiff, [1] after which the officers were able to handcuff and secure Plaintiff. Once the officers had Plaintiff secured, Defendant Harris conducted a canine sniff of the exterior of the car, and upon his dog's alert, he conducted a full search of the interior of the vehicle. An inventory search of the vehicle was also conducted because it was being towed from the scene. As a result of his search efforts, Defendant Harris discovered some rolling papers and a small amount of marijuana "shake" in the passenger floor board.

Plaintiff's Amended Complaint [Doc. #111] depicted a different chain of events upon giving Defendant Harris his identification. According to Plaintiff, he demanded a reason for the traffic stop and citations, but he contended that Defendant Harris did not respond. After Plaintiff refused to turn over his car keys upon Defendant Harris's demand, Defendant Harris ordered Plaintiff out of the vehicle. Once Plaintiff had exited the vehicle, Defendant Harris allegedly grabbed and held Plaintiff's arms behind his back and began physically searching Plaintiff's pant pockets without explanation and without Plaintiff's consent. Despite not finding anything illegal on Plaintiff's person, Plaintiff alleged that Defendant Harris pushed Plaintiff, used a racial slur, and then tripped Plaintiff to the ground. Plaintiff further alleged that Defendant Harris then jumped on Plaintiff's back and began punching him in the head and face. Plaintiff alleged that he raised his arms to attempt to block Defendant Harris's physical assault, but that he did not actively resist or attempt to flee and that he was not armed. According to Plaintiff, shortly after Defendant Harris stopped beating Plaintiff, another officer arrived on the scene and tasered Plaintiff, after which Defendant Harris resumed beating Plaintiff. Plaintiff alleged that Defendant Harris's use of force was pursuant to an unwritten department policy. As a result of these alleged beatings, Plaintiff asserted that he suffered a back injury, minor bruises, swelling of his face and mouth, and a loose tooth. Defendant Harris then allegedly lifted Plaintiff from the ground and handcuffed him. According to Plaintiff, Defendant informed him that he was under arrest for resisting arrest.

Plaintiff next alleged that Defendant Harris conducted a search of Plaintiff's vehicle according to unwritten department policy. This search allegedly yielded nothing illegal, but a second search conducted by Defendant Harris led to the discovery of a book of tobacco rolling papers. After all criminal charges arising from this incident were dismissed against Plaintiff, the vehicle was ordered to be returned to him. However, Plaintiff alleged that Defendant City of Rockingham ("Defendant Rockingham") then falsely informed the presiding North Carolina State District Court Judge that the vehicle did not belong to Plaintiff. The order releasing the vehicle to Plaintiff was vacated, allegedly preventing Plaintiff from recovering his vehicle.

Based on the foregoing facts, Plaintiff, pro se, filed this action against Defendants on December 6, 2010, alleging various claims of federal constitutional violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and § 1985, state law violations, and state constitutional violations based on the initial encounter between Plaintiff and Defendant Harris and the events that followed. On August 14, 2012, Defendants moved for Summary Judgment [Doc. #88]. Upon motion by Plaintiff, Plaintiff received leave from this Court to amend his original Complaint to add an additional claim of retaliation. However, the Court denied Plaintiff's request for leave to add an additional defendant. Defendants then filed a Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. #114]. After requesting and receiving several extensions to respond, Plaintiff did not respond to Defendants' Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment. As such, Defendant's motion is unopposed.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a court shall grant summary judgment when there exists no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Zahodnick v. Int'l Bus. Machs. Corp. , 135 F.3d 911, 913 (4th Cir. 1997). The party seeking summary judgment bears the burden of initially coming forward and demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Once the moving party has met its burden, the non-moving party must then affirmatively demonstrate the presence of a genuine issue of material fact which requires trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1349, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). When making a summary judgment determination, the court must view the evidence and all justifiable inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Zahodnick , 135 F.3d at 913. However, the party opposing summary judgment may not rest on mere allegations or denials, and the court need not consider "unsupported assertions" or "self-serving opinions without objective corroboration." Evans v. Techs. Applications & Serv. Co. , 80 F.3d 954, 962 (4th Cir. 1996); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248-49, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

"If a respondent fails to file a response within the time required by this rule, the motion will be considered and decided as an uncontested motion, and ordinarily will be granted without further notice." L.R. 7.3(k). Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, "[i]f a party... fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact as required by Rule 56(c), the court may... consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); see Custer v. Pan Am. Life Ins. Co. , 12 F.3d 410, 416 (4th Cir. 1993) ("[T]he failure of a party to respond to a summary judgment motion may leave uncontroverted those facts established by the motion."). However, "in considering a motion for summary judgment, the district court must review the motion, even if unopposed, and determine from what it has before it whether the moving party is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.'" Robinson v. Wix Filtration Corp. , 599 F.3d 403, 409 n.8 (4th Cir. 2010) (quoting Custer , 12 F.3d at 416); see Maryland v. Universal Elections, Inc. 729 F.3d 370 , 380 (4th Cir. 2013); Adefila v. Select Specialty Hosp., No. 1:13CV68, 2014 WL 2882931, at *5 n.7 (M.D. N.C. June 25, 2014).

III. DISCUSSION

As noted above, Plaintiff did not respond to the present Motion despite being given multiple extensions of time in which to do so. Thus, the Court will treat the Motion for Summary Judgment as unopposed and consider the uncontroverted facts established by Defendants' motion. However, to the extent Defendants discussed and attached Plaintiff's video in their Motion, the Court will begin by considering whether Plaintiff's video in and of itself is sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact. Because the Court finds that Plaintiff's video does not establish a dispute of fact, the Court will then evaluate Plaintiff's respective federal and state claims based on Defendants' uncontroverted facts.

A. Plaintiff's Video

To support his claims, Plaintiff relied on an approximately 12-second video which allegedly depicts the events surrounding his arrest on December 8, 2008. (Kelly Aff. Ex. A [Doc. 88-3].) Defendants disputed the authenticity of Plaintiff's video and submitted their own video to the Court depicting the events surrounding Plaintiff's arrest. To the extent the Defendants discussed and submitted Plaintiff's video in their Motion for Summary Judgment, the Court considers whether this video is sufficient to create a genuine dispute of material fact.

Plaintiff originally submitted this video to the Rockingham Police Department with a citizen's complaint he made directly with the department after his arrest. Defendants raised serious concerns as to the authenticity of Plaintiff's video and suggested the video is a fabrication. Although the Court may not weigh the credibility of evidence on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must limit its review of the record to admissible, authentic evidence. "For a non-moving party with the burden of proof at trial, [m]aterial that is inadmissible will not be considered on a summary-judgment motion because it would not establish a genuine issue of material fact if offered at trial and continuing the action would be useless.'" Sook Yoon v. Sebelius, Civ. A. CBD-08-3173, 2010 WL 4293513, ...


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