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Phelan v. Village of Lyons

May 23, 2007

LAURA PHELAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
VILLAGE OF LYONS, ILLINOIS, AND DAMIEN DYAS, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge George M. Marovich

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Laura Phelan ("Phelan") filed an amended complaint against defendants Village of Lyons, Illinois and Damien Dyas ("Dyas"), in which Phelan alleges that she was subjected to an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Both Phelan and defendant Dyas have moved for summary judgment with respect to Dyas's qualified immunity defense. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies plaintiff's motion for summary judgment. The Court grants defendant Dyas's motion for summary judgment.

I. Background

Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are undisputed.*fn1

Plaintiff Laura Phelan is a Chicago resident who drove through the Village of Lyons on October 14, 2004 on her way to a mall. That evening, Phelan was driving a white Cadillac with the license plate number 1020.

As Phelan was driving north on Harlem Avenue between 5:00 and 5:30 that evening, defendant Damien Dyas, a Village of Lyons police officer, was driving behind her. Dyas decided to conduct a random check on Phelan's license plate. Dyas entered Phelan's plate number into the computer in his police car. The parties dispute what happened while Dyas waited for a response. According to Dyas, Phelan's car swerved suddenly into the right-turn-only lane, failed to turn right, continued through a second right-turn-only lane and then swerved left in front of another vehicle. Phelan denies swerving into the right-turn-only lane and continuing through the intersection without turning.

The parties agree that a police dispatcher informed Dyas that license plate 1020 was a stolen vehicle. Dyas also received a response to his computer inquiry, which response reflected the fact that license 1020 was registered to a stolen vehicle. Dyas did not notice the last line on his computer screen, which reflected the fact that plate 1020 was registered to a black motorcycle.

Dyas, believing Phelan was driving a stolen vehicle, proceeded to conduct a felony traffic stop of Phelan's vehicle. A felony traffic stop is considered to be a high risk traffic stop. Dyas instructed Phelan to remove the keys from the ignition, toss them outside the vehicle and walk backwards toward him. Another officer handcuffed Phelan. Someone put Phelan in the back of Dyas's police car, where she remained for nearly five minutes. After Dyas searched Phelan's car, Dyas returned to the police car and learned from dispatch that the stolen vehicle was a motorcycle. Dyas immediately released Phelan.

Phelan filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting that she was subjected to an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In his answer, Dyas asserted a qualified immunity defense. Both Phelan and Dyas move for summary judgment as to qualified immunity.

II. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment should be granted when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). When making such a determination, the Court must construe the evidence and make all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). Summary judgment is appropriate, however, when the non-moving party "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to the party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). "A genuine issue of material fact arises only if sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party exists to permit a jury to return a verdict for that party." Brummett v. Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc., 414 F.3d 686, 692 (7th Cir. 2005).

III. Discussion

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their person, house, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." Const. Amend. IV. A detention during a traffic stop constitutes a seizure for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-810 (1996). Such a seizure is reasonable if the police officer has "probable cause to believe a traffic violation has occurred." Whren, 517 U.S. at 810.

Even if a police officer violates the Fourth Amendment, he is entitled to qualified immunity "for actions taken during a stop or arrest 'insofar as [his] conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'" Smith v. City of Chi., 242 F.3d 737, 742 (7th Cir. 2001); see also Sornberger v. City of Knoxville, 434 F.3d 1006, 1014 (7th Cir. 2006) ("even if probable cause is lacking with respect to an arrest, the arresting officer is entitled to immunity so long as his belief that he had probable cause was objectively reasonable."). Though qualified immunity is a "defense to a ยง 1983 action, it is the plaintiff who bears the burden of proof" because it is the plaintiff who must establish a constitutional violation. Eversole v. Steele, 59 F.3d 710, 717 (7th Cir. 1995). "The qualified immunity standard 'gives ample room for mistaken judgments' by protecting 'all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.'" Hunter v. Bryant, ...


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