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Mitchell v. Miller

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

August 14, 2019




         Plaintiff, who was formerly imprisoned in the Wisconsin prison system, was allowed to proceed on a claim of violations of his Fourth Amendment rights against the Defendants, who are law enforcement officers. (Docket #10 at 3-4). Plaintiff alleged that he was arrested by Defendants as part of a prostitution sting, but that Defendants lacked reasonable suspicion to initially detain him or probable cause to arrest him. Id. All parties have filed motions for summary judgment.

         Plaintiff's motion was filed on October 4, 2018, (Docket #50), and Defendants' motions were filed on November 1, 2018, (Docket #53 and #60). Along with their motions, Defendants filed a joint statement of proposed findings of fact. (Docket #58). According to that statement, Defendants were indeed engaged in a prostitution sting operation. In this instance, the sting targeted a woman, Laquita Blackmer (“Blackmer”), who was a suspected prostitute. The officers hoped to lure Blackmer to meet with them so they could determine who was trafficking her, or in more common parlance, who her pimp was.

         On April 20, 2016, Blackmer arrived at the officers' undercover residence in a vehicle driven by Plaintiff. Defendants followed Plaintiff, who drove around the block and then back towards the sting location, where he then parked. They approached Plaintiff's vehicle and spoke with him for a time. They then detained Plaintiff and placed him in handcuffs, based on their experience that individuals involved in sex trafficking are often armed. Plaintiff was searched, led into the house, and read his Miranda rights. The handcuffs were taken off about thirty minutes later.

         Defendants simultaneously arrested, and then interviewed, Blackmer. She admitted that she had come to the house intending to prostitute herself. Blackmer was quite nervous when the conversation turned to Plaintiff, stating that he was just a friend dropping her off. Blackmer fearfully asked officers whether Plaintiff was nearby or could hear them speaking. She later stated that she was afraid that Plaintiff would hurt her. The officers also located a few identical phones on Blackmer and in the car. This behavior is consistent with a pimp owning several phones for his girls to use, so that he could be in control of their conversations with the clients. Eventually, Blackmer stated outright that Plaintiff had recruited her to be a prostitute for him.

         In light of these facts, Defendants had probable cause to arrest Plaintiff at least for being an accomplice to the crime of prostitution, if not additional and far more serious human trafficking offenses. Plaintiff was nevertheless interviewed and released that night, after being detained for about an hour. Later, Plaintiff was charged with human trafficking in state court. At Plaintiff's preliminary hearing, the judge found probable cause existed to arrest Plaintiff for human trafficking based on the facts recounted above.

         Defendants argue that these facts warrant judgment in their favor, both on the issue of Plaintiff's stop and his arrest. All persons enjoy the Fourth Amendment's right to be free from unreasonable seizures, including warrantless arrests. Nevertheless, Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), permits police officers to detain persons whom they reasonably suspect are engaged in criminal activity. Such investigatory stops are proper “if the officer making the stop is able to point to specific and articulable facts that give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” United States v. Bullock, 632 F.3d 1004, 1012 (7th Cir. 2011) (quotation omitted). “When determining if seizure exceeds the bounds of Terry, the court should ask: (1) whether the police were aware of specific and articulable facts giving rise to reasonable suspicion; and (2) whether the degree of intrusion was reasonably related to the known facts.” Id. (quotation omitted).

         Courts assessing a Fourth Amendment claim related to a Terry stop must “examine the totality of the circumstances known to the officer at the time of the stop, including the experience of the officer and the behavior and characteristics of the suspect.” Id. The threshold for reasonable suspicion to justify a Terry stop is low; “[i]t requires more than a hunch but less than probable cause and considerably less than preponderance of the evidence.” Id. (quotation omitted). Here, the evidence before Defendants easily supported a reasonable suspicion that Plaintiff was engaged in crime. Defendants had engaged Blackmer unmistakably for the purpose of prostitution. Plaintiff was observed dropping off her off at the sting location designated for the commission of the crime. He then circled back to the area after briefly driving away.

         Defendants' actions also did not go beyond the bounds of a permissible Terry stop. Such stops generally involve an interview and may include handcuffing if appropriate for the officers' safety. Based on Defendants' experience with these types of crimes, their decisions to handcuff Plaintiff for a limited time and to conduct a pat-down search were reasonable. Plaintiff was detained for just under an hour before being released. The degree of intrusion on Plaintiff's affairs was low, particularly in light of the damning statements made by Blackmer.

         Plaintiff maintains that his detention went beyond a mere Terry stop to a full-blown arrest. If true, Defendants would need to demonstrate that they had probable cause to suspect that Plaintiff had committed a crime. United States v. Paige, 870 F.3d 693, 699 (7th Cir. 2017) (“A warrantless arrest is constitutionally permissible if supported by probable cause.”) (quotation omitted). As with reasonable suspicion, the test for probable cause examines “the totality of the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time of the arrest” to determine whether “a reasonable, prudent person [would believe] that the arrestee had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime.” United States v. Sands, 815 F.3d 1057, 1062 (7th Cir. 2015).

         Defendants half-heartedly dispute whether Plaintiff was indeed arrested, but they accurately note that even if this were true, they had probable cause for the arrest. All of the same evidence leading to Defendants' reasonable suspicion of Plaintiff's criminal activity also establishes probable cause for a number of crimes, including being a party to the crime of prostitution, and human trafficking. Additionally, the state court trial judge in Plaintiff's criminal case found probable cause on these facts. Because “[p]robable cause is an absolute defense to a claim of wrongful arrest, ” Plaintiff's claim related to his arrest fails. Chelios v. Heavener, 520 F.3d 678, 685 (7th Cir. 2008).

         Plaintiff responded to Defendants' motions on November 19, 2018. His responsive materials consisted of a letter to the Court about his filings, (Docket #68), a brief in opposition to Defendants' motions, (Docket #69), and an affidavit, (Docket #70). Nowhere in Plaintiff's submissions, however, is a response to Defendants' statement of facts that complies with the applicable procedural rules. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 and Civil Local Rule 56 describe in detail the form and contents of a proper summary judgment submission. In particular, they state that a party opposing a summary judgment motion must file

(B) a concise response to the moving party's statement of facts that must contain:
(i) a reproduction of each numbered paragraph in the moving party's statement of facts followed by a response to each paragraph, including, in the case of any disagreement, specific references to the affidavits, declarations, parts of ...

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