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Dejean v. Town of Washington

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lafayette Division

April 23, 2015



PATRICK J. HANNA, Magistrate Judge.

Before the Court are the Motion for Summary Judgment based on Qualified Immunity filed by Officer Richard Arceneaux, Police Chief Ronelle Broussard, and Mayor John Pitre [Rec. Doc. 33] and the corresponding motion by Darwin Select Insurance Company. [Rec. Doc. 44]. The motions have been referred to the undersigned for Report and Recommendation. One of them is opposed by the plaintiff. [Rec. Doc. 45]. A Reply/Response memorandum was filed by the movants. [Rec. Doc. 48]. After considering the filings and arguments of the parties, the applicable law, and for the reasons set out herein, it is recommended that the motions be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

Factual and Procedural Background:

This litigation arises out of events on the afternoon of December 2, 2012. At approximately 3:47 p.m., Town of Washington police officer Richard Arceneaux responded to a 911 call from St. Landry Parish about a piece of steel on the interstate highway near Mile Marker 25. [Rec. Doc. 33-3, p. 3]. The Town of Washington dispatcher sent Arceneaux to investigate and remove the obstruction. He drove to the area, turned around across the median of the interstate highway to drive north back to Exit 25, where he had been told the metal object was located. He saw a large piece of steel resembling an 18 wheeler muffler in the right lane of the interstate. He stopped his police unit in the travel lane of the highway, just north of the sign identifying the corporate city limits of the Town of Washington, and he activated his emergency lights with an arrow directing that all traffic should move to the left lane. He got out of his unit and removed the piece of metal and other smaller scraps to the roadside. [Rec. Doc. 33-3, p. 7, ¶¶3-6].

According to Mr. Dejean, at about the same time, he entered the northbound section of the interstate highway near the Highway 167 intersection. He observed the flashing blue lights of a police car ahead in the distance, but he could not tell if the vehicle was stationary or moving. He proceeded north on the highway in the right hand travel lane. [Rec. Doc. 45-3, p. 21, ¶¶1-2]. He observed other vehicles begin to merge into the left lane of travel at a reduced speed. He then noticed that the police vehicle was unmanned and he moved into the left lane to pass the police unit. As he did so, he saw a police officer standing in the roadway in front of the stopped police vehicle. [Rec. Doc. 45-3, pp. 21-22, ¶¶3, 5]. He blew his horn to get the officer's attention, made eye contact with the officer, and mouthed words to the officer, pointing at the vehicle. [Rec. Doc. 45-3, p. 22, ¶6].

According to Officer Arceneaux, as he moved to return to his unit after clearing the debris, he heard a long continuous horn honking and saw a tan SUV driving in the right lane of the roadway, despite the directional arrow flashing on the police unit. He observed the vehicle swerve at the last second into the left lane, almost striking the police vehicle. The driver made eye contact, used his finger to express something and mouthed words at the officer. [Rec. Doc. 33-3, p. 7, ¶7]. Because of the driver's reckless manner of operating his vehicle, Arceneaux got into his unit, engaged his siren and pulled over the driver who he later learned was Felix Dejean. There is no dispute that the stop occurred within the city limits of the Town of Washington.

Under Arceneaux's version of the facts, Dejean was told that he had been stopped for driving recklessly. Arceneaux asked for Dejean's driver's license and registration, but he refused to produce them. Dejean also refused the officer's directive to exit the vehicle. Arceneaux opened the driver's door and ordered Dejean out of the vehicle. [Rec. Doc. 33-3, p. 8, ¶11]. According to Arceneaux, Dejean did not immediately comply but turned and reached for something to the right side of his seat. Arceneaux asserts he used stronger verbal commands ordering Dejean to show his hands. Dejean ignored the directive and continued to turn his body and reach between the seats in the SUV. Arceneaux asserts he loudly commanded Dejean two more times to place his hands on the wheel, and Dejean refused to comply. Arceneaux drew his weapon and trained it on Dejean, ordering him again to show his hands. Dejean complied. Arceneaux holstered his weapon and ordered Dejean to exit the vehicle, but Dejean continued to argue with the officer, staying in the vehicle. At that point, Arceneaux withdrew his OC spray cannister. When he saw the cannister, Dejean stated, "I know you aren't going to spray me with that." [Rec. Doc. 1-1, ¶12].[1] Arceneaux sprayed Dejean on his neck as he turned away. [Rec. Doc. 1-1, ¶13]. Dejean then complied and got out of the vehicle.

According to Arceneaux, Dejean was advised of his Miranda rights, handcuffed and placed under arrest at about 4:19 p.m. [Rec. Doc. 33-3, pp. 4, 11]. Arceneaux searched the vehicle and found a hatchet wedged between the front seat and the console, which he photographed, bagged and secured as evidence. [Rec. Doc. 33-3, p. 8, ¶16]. Arceneaux requested assistance for transport, and another officer (Lazard) arrived and took Dejean to the police station where he was booked with reckless operation and resisting an officer by failing to comply. DeJean was placed in a holding cell by 4:24 p.m. [Rec. Doc. 33-3, pp. 4, 8-9, ¶18-19].

The matter was set for hearing in the Mayor's Court. The mayor and the city attorney recused themselves as friends of Dejean, and another attorney was selected to preside. At the hearing, Dejean asserted that the probable cause to arrest him occurred outside the city limits of Washington, making the arrest invalid. Arceneaux testified that the probable cause arose within the city limits where the metal was found. The presiding attorney dismissed the charges based upon his conclusion that the incident occurred outside city limits.

In the complaint, Dejean alleged that Arceneaux abused his authority as a police officer and, by taking advantage of his position as a police officer, submitted Dejean to unreasonable hardships and demands. [Rec. Doc. 1-1, ¶23]. Dejean alleged he was maced and held at gunpoint by Arceneaux and was forced to remain in handcuffs for approximately one hour on the roadside while his vehicle was searched without his consent and that he was placed in a holding cell for approximately two hours. [Rec. Doc. 1-1, ¶¶12-14, 21, 26, 31]. Dejean also alleged that Arceneaux falsified the incident report. [Rec. Doc. 1-1, ¶41]. Dejean alleged the conduct of Arceneaux constituted false arrest, wrongful imprisonment, negligent arrest, criminal malicious prosecution, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. [Rec. Doc. 1-1, ¶42]. The pleading does not specifically allege excessive force by Arceneaux, but it does contain factual allegations regarding the officer's use of mace and drawing and pointing his weapon at Dejean, which do raise the issue of excessive force.

On April 10, 2013, DeJean filed suit in the 27th Judicial District Court, Opelousas, Louisiana against the Town of Washington, the Washington Police Department, Officer Richard Arceneaux, Police Chief Ronnelle Broussard, and Mayor Joseph Pitre. The claims are brought under 28 U.S.C. § 1983. The individual defendants have been sued in both their official and individual capacities. [Rec. Doc. 1-1, ¶2]. Municipal liability has been asserted against the Washington Police Department and the Town of Washington. State law tort claims have also been raised. In a First Supplemental and Amended Petition for Damages filed October 3, 2013, the insurer Allied World National Assurance Company was added as a defendant. [Rec. Doc. 1-1, p. 76]. On November 8, 2013, the captioned matter was removed to this court by Darwin Select Insurance Company[2], based on federal question jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343. Dejean asserted that the acts of the named defendants infringed on his constitutional rights to be protected against arrest without probable cause, warrantless searches, deprivation of liberty and property without due process and other guarantees provided by law. [Rec. Doc. 1-1, ¶45].

Applicable Law and Analysis

In the Motion for Summary Judgment [Rec. Doc. 31], the defendants seek dismissal of the § 1983 claims against Arceneaux, Chief Broussard, and Mayor Pitre in their individual capacities because of qualified immunity. The motion is limited, however, and focuses on the stop and arrest of Dejean and whether Arceneaux had probable cause for same. It does not address excessive force as the defendants contend that the plaintiff has not made an excessive force claim.

I. The Summary Judgment Standard:

Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A fact is material if proof of its existence or nonexistence might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under the applicable substantive law in the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Minter v. Great American Ins. Co. of New York, 423 F.3d 460, 465 (5th Cir. 2005). A genuine issue of material fact exists if a reasonable jury could render a verdict for the nonmoving party. Brumfield v. Hollins, 551 F.3d 322, 326 (5th Cir. 2008), citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 252.

The party seeking summary judgment has the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those parts of the record that it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Washburn v. Harvey, 504 F.3d at 505, 508 (5th Cir. 2007), citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the moving party carries its initial burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to demonstrate the existence of a genuine issue of a material fact. Id. All facts and justifiable inferences are construed in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Brumfield v. Hollins, 551 F.3d at 326; Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 255.

If the dispositive issue is one on which the nonmoving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may satisfy its burden by pointing out that there is insufficient proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim. Norwegian Bulk Transport A/S v. International Marine Terminals Partnership, 520 F.3d 409, 412 (5th Cir. 2008), citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. at 325. The motion should be granted if the non-moving party cannot produce evidence to support an essential element of its claim. Condrey v. SunTrust Bank of Georgia, 431 F.3d 191, 197 (5th Cir. 2005). Where no such showing is made, the moving party "is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law because the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case with respect to which she has the burden of proof." Lujan v. Nat. Wildlife Federation, 497 U.S. 871, 884 (1990) ( quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. at 322-23 (1986)). The Fifth Circuit has further elaborated:

[The parties'] burden is not satisfied with some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ' by conclusory allegations, ' by unsubstantiated assertions, ' or by only a scintilla' of evidence. We resolve factual controversies in favor of the nonmoving party, but only when there is an actual controversy, that is, when both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts. We do not, however, in the absence of any proof, assume that the nonmoving party could or would prove the necessary facts....[S]ummary judgment is appropriate in any case where critical evidence is so weak or tenuous on an essential fact that it could not support a judgment in favor of the nonmovant.

Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994)(en banc)(citations and internal ...

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