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Phelan v. Village of Lyons

June 27, 2008

LAURA PHELAN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
VILLAGE OF LYONS AND DAMIEN DYAS, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 04 C 8327-George M. Marovich, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rovner, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED JANUARY 7, 2008

Before POSNER, ROVNER, and WOOD,Circuit Judges.

As she was driving through the Village of Lyons en route to the North Riverside Mall, Laura Phelan was pulled over and arrested. Officer Damien Dyas executed the traffic stop based on his belief that Phelan*fn1 was driving a stolen vehicle. His belief turned out to be mistaken, and Phelan was released shortly thereafter. She sued the Village of Lyons and Officer Dyas under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of her rights under the Fourth Amendment. On the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court granted Officer Dyas's motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. Phelan appeals, and for the reasons explained in this opinion, we reverse the grant of summary judgment to Officer Dyas and remand for further proceedings.

I.

Shortly after 5:30 p.m. on October 14, 2004, Village of Lyons police officer Damien Dyas was nearing the end of his 12-hour shift. He decided to run a random license check on the white Cadillac sedan driving in front of him. Laura Phelan was driving the car, which bore the license plate number 1020. After entering the plate number into a computer in his squad car, Officer Dyas received what is referred to as a LEADS report on the computer screen in his car.

The first screen of the LEADS report contained, among other things, the date and time of Officer Dyas's query, the status of the vehicle registered to the plate in question (either "valid," "stolen," or "suspended"), and a description of a vehicle. As relevant here, the second line relayed that the vehicle registered to plate 1020 was "stolen."

The third line contained the description for the "stolen" vehicle: a black 2002 Honda motorcycle (relayed on the LEADS screen in acronyms as "DOT/081504 VCO/BLK VYR/02 VMA/HD VMO/CYL VST/MC"). Unfortunately, Officer Dyas did not see this description of the stolen vehicle. Instead, he read only as far as the second line stating that plate 1020 belonged to a stolen vehicle. He thus had no occasion to confront the obvious discrepancy between the vehicle description (black Honda motorcycle) and the vehicle in front of him (white Cadillac). As the parties explained at oral argument, this discrepancy arose on account of the confusing Illinois licensing system for automobiles and motorcycles: the license plates for both vehicles may have the same number, and are distinguishable by virtue of the fact that motorcycle plates are smaller in size than car plates , a fact any trained law enforcement officer would know.*fn2

After reading lines one and two of the LEADS report, Officer Dyas contacted the dispatcher and reported that he was following a possible stolen motor vehicle. In response to Officer Dyas's query, the dispatcher confirmed that license plate 1020 belonged to a stolen vehicle, and Officer Dyas's location was relayed to assisting officers who arrived at the scene shortly. In the interim, Officer Dyas*fn3 continued to follow Phelan's Cadillac until she stopped at a railroad crossing. At that point Officer Dyas and the arriving back-up officers conducted a "felony-traffic stop." After activating his emergency lights and signaling Phelan to pull over, Officer Dyas instructed Phelan to turn off her vehicle and throw her car keys out of the window. She was then told to exit her vehicle and walk backwards until officers were able to place her in handcuffs and secure her in the squad car. After Officer Dyas searched Phelan's car, he learned through dispatch the information that the third line of the LEADS report had disclosed: that the stolen vehicle was in fact a black Honda motorcycle. He then allowed Phelan to exit the squad car, removed the hand-cuffs, and released her.

As relevant here, Phelan sued Officer Dyas in his individual capacity, alleging that the stop violated her Fourth Amendment Rights. The district court granted Officer Dyas's motion for summary judgment after concluding that he was entitled to qualified immunity for the stop because he had a reasonable basis to believe that Phelan was driving a stolen vehicle.

II.

On appeal, Phelan maintains that Officer Dyas was not entitled to qualified immunity for the felony traffic stop.

We review the district court's decision de novo, asking whether, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Phelan, Officer Dyas is nonetheless entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law. Boyd v. Owen, 481 F.3d 520, 522 (7th Cir. 2007). Qualified immunity protects public officials in those situations where the law is not sufficiently clear for a reasonable official to have known that his actions were illegal. See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 202 (2001); Holmes v. Village of Hoffman Estate, 511 F.3d 673, 687 (7th Cir. 2007). Saucier lays out a two-part test for qualified immunity. First, we consider whether, taken in the light most favorable to Phelan, the facts alleged amount to a constitutional violation. Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201; Boyd, 481 F.3d at 524 (reiterating Saucier's command to first determine whether plaintiff has alleged a constitutional violation). Second, we ask whether the right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201; Boyd, 481 F.3d at 526. The "rigid" order of the Saucier test has been repeatedly criticized, see, e.g., Scott v. Harris, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 1780-81 (2007) (Breyer, J., concurring), and the Supreme Court recently granted certiorari to consider whether Saucier should be overruled. Pearson v. Callahan, 128 S.Ct. 1702 (Mar. 24, 2008) (directing parties to brief and argue "Whether the Court's decision in Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001) should be overruled?"). Meanwhile, we adhere to Saucier's sequential approach.

As for the first prong, we conclude that the facts as alleged by Phelan establish a constitutional violation by Officer Dyas. A traffic stop and accompanying detention constitute a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, which protects "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." Thus, an automobile stop violates the Constitution if it is "unreasonable" under the circumstances. See Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10 (1996). A stop is reasonable if the officer has "probable cause to ...


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