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Young v. L.R. Hansen

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

July 26, 2019

L.R. HANSEN, Defendants.



         This is a pro se civil rights action filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by Plaintiff James Jeter Jr Young, an inmate in the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. His central allegations in this case are that Defendant L.R. Hansen, a police officer in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, improperly seized and searched his cellular telephones. Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. #28] which Plaintiff opposes.

         I. Allegations and Facts

         Plaintiff's Complaint makes only sparse factual allegations. Plaintiff claims that Defendant seized his cellular telephones on a ramp to an interstate highway in Winston-Salem at approximately 10:00 p.m. on March 24, 2017. (Complaint [Doc. #2] § IV.) Plaintiff states that Defendant justified the seizure by stating that the phones might reveal evidence related to a crime. (Id.) In an attachment to the Complaint, Plaintiff adds an allegation that Defendant seized the phones without a warrant and without any information related to criminal activity. (Id., Attach.) He states that Defendant later procured a search warrant for the phones, but that the warrant was not executed within 48 hours, as required by the warrant, which renders the search warrantless. (Id.) Plaintiff contends that the seizure and subsequent search of his phones violated his rights under the constitutions of both the United States and the State of North Carolina. (Id. § II(B).)[1] Based on this contention, he asserts a claim against Defendant in his individual capacity seeking damages in the amount of $50, 000. (Id. §§ I(B), VI.)

         In support of his Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendant filed an Affidavit (Defendant's Brief [Doc. #29], Attach. 1) with supporting exhibits. In that document, Defendant explains the circumstances that led to the seizure and search of Plaintiff's phones. On March 24, 2017, Defendant and another officer were conducting surveillance on a house where a heroin overdose had occurred the night before. (Id. ¶ 6.) They observed a vehicle enter the driveway and stay for a few minutes with the lights on and the driver (later determined to be Plaintiff) remaining in the car. (Id.) Defendant used the license tag to check the vehicle's records and discovered that the owner was deceased, the registration expired, and the insurance policy terminated. (Id.)

         The vehicle left the residence and Defendant followed along with another officer, while radioing officers in the area to request assistance in stopping the vehicle for the insurance and registration violations. (Id. ¶ 7.) When the other officers were in place, Defendant stopped the vehicle on the ramp leading to eastbound Interstate 40. (Id.)

         Two men occupied the front seat of the stopped automobile and Defendant approached the passenger side of the car as another officer approached the driver's side. (Id. ¶ 8.) Defendant recognized the passenger, Christopher Martin, as the person who had reported the heroin overdose the night before. (Id. ¶ 9.) Defendant informed Plaintiff of the reason for the stop and requested his license and the vehicle registration. (Id.) When Plaintiff looked at Martin and indicated that he did not know the location of the registration, Defendant asked who owned the vehicle. (Id.) Martin stated that the vehicle belonged to his deceased mother and reached to open the glove box for the registration. (Id.) At that point, Defendant noticed “track marks” on Martin's arms, a sign of heroin use. (Id.) Martin also looked extremely thin, pale, and unhealthy, which Defendant believed typical of a heroin user. (Id. ¶¶ 10-11.)

         Martin could not find the registration and Plaintiff, when asked a second time for a driver's license, admitted that he did not have one and produced a North Carolina identification card. (Id. ¶ 12.) Defendant asked Martin to step out of the vehicle, Martin complied, and Defendant asked if he was ok with talking to him, and Martin replied that he was. (Id.) Defendant asked him about the track marks, to which Martin answered that he used heroin and opiate pills. (Id.) After Martin consented to a search of his person for drugs, which revealed nothing, Defendant then asked for consent to search the vehicle, and Martin gave consent. (Id.) Defendant instructed another officer, Officer Ferguson, to have Plaintiff exit the vehicle so that the search could be conducted. (Id.) He thereafter heard something of a confrontation between Ferguson and Plaintiff and was informed shortly afterward that Ferguson had found a plastic bag of drugs on Plaintiff's person. (Id.) Plaintiff was then arrested. (Id.) Defendant handcuffed Martin for officer safety and proceeded to search the vehicle. (Id. ¶ 13.) Defendant located half a bottle of tequila on the passenger side, drug paraphernalia belonging to Martin in the glove box, and three cellular telephones on the driver's seat. (Id.) After Martin told Defendant that the phones belonged to Plaintiff, Defendant seized them as evidence. (Id.)

         Defendant arrested Martin, who then waived his rights and consented to a search of his residence, which had been the house under observation after the overdose. (Id. ¶¶ 14, 15.) He advised that his cousin, Joshua Clifton, who had been the overdose victim the night before, was there. (Id. ¶ 14.) Officers transported Martin and Plaintiff back to the residence, where Clifton cooperated with the search. (Id. ¶ 16.) This uncovered drug paraphernalia and other evidence. (Id.) Officers transported Martin and Plaintiff to jail, where both men waived their right to remain silent and spoke with officers. (Id. ¶¶ 18, 19.) Martin stated that he loaned his vehicle to Plaintiff in exchange for heroin and that Plaintiff used the vehicle to distribute drugs throughout the city. (Id. ¶ 18.) He described Plaintiff as the “go-to guy” for heroin in Winston-Salem. (Id.) Plaintiff admitted to possessing the heroin found on his person and to being a heroin dealer. (Id. ¶ 19.) He stated that he procured heroin in Washington, D.C. and that he bought it $10, 000 at a time, but refused to name the source of the heroin. (Id.)

         After the interviews, Defendant used the information to procure arrest warrants for Plaintiff and Martin. (Id. ¶ 20.) On April 7, 2017, Defendant also sought and received a search warrant allowing a search of Plaintiff's seized telephones. (Id. ¶ 22.) Defendant retrieved the phones from evidence storage and took them to a police investigator, who then searched them. (Id. ¶¶ 24-26.) Defendant thereafter returned the warrant to the issuing magistrate. (Id. ¶ 27.)

         That warrant is attached as an exhibit to both Plaintiff's Complaint and Defendant's Affidavit. It reflects that it was issued at 11:42 a.m. on April 7, 2017 and returned executed on that same day at 1:16 p.m. A box on the warrant is also checked indicating that the warrant was not executed within 48 hours of its issuance and that it was being returned unexecuted. Defendant states that the checking of this box was a mistake by “[s]omeone.” (Id. ¶ 29.) Plaintiff later pled guilty to heroin trafficking charges. (Id. ¶ 30.)

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate when no genuine issue of material fact exists. Shealy v. Winston, 929 F.2d 1009, 1011 (4th Cir. 1991). A genuine issue of fact exists if the evidence presented could lead a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict in favor of the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). A court considering a motion for summary judgment must view all facts and draw all reasonable inferences from the evidence before it in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id. The proponent of summary judgment “bears the initial burden of pointing to the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Temkin v. Frederick County Comm'rs, 945 F.2d 716, 718 (4th Cir. 1991) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)). If the movant carries this burden, then the burden “shifts to the non-moving party to come forward with facts sufficient to create a triable issue of fact.” Id. at 718-19 (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48). A mere scintilla of ...

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