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Wheeler v. Lawson

August 21, 2008

MICHELLE WHEELER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
RONALD LAWSON, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS AN OFFICER OF THE STARKE COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT, ROBERT SIMS, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SHERIFF OF STARKE COUNTY, AND STARKE COUNTY COMMISSIONERS, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division. No. 05 C 421-Robert L. Miller, Jr., Chief Judge.

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

ARGUED MAY 15, 2008

Before RIPPLE, KANNE and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.

Michelle Wheeler filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Ronald Lawson, individually and in his official capacity as an officer of the Starke County Sheriff's Department. Ms. Wheeler alleges that Detective Lawson violated the Fourth Amendment, as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, by unlawfully arresting her without probable cause for maintaining a common nuisance. Detective Lawson filed a motion for summary judgment, which the district court granted.*fn1 Ms. Wheeler timely appeals.*fn2

For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the district court.

I. BACKGROUND

A.

In April 2004, Ms. Wheeler resided with her three children in a home in Knox, Indiana. During this time, she was separated from her husband, Charles Darren Wheeler ("Darren"), who lived fifteen to twenty minutes away; Darren visited Ms. Wheeler and the children about once a week. The residence, which was owned jointly by Ms. Wheeler and Darren, had an attached two-car garage, which isnot at issue in this case. It also had a separate detached garage (or the "garage") that was located about 500 to 600 feet from the residence. Ms. Wheeler's arrest stems from a fire that occurred on April 6, 2004, in the detached garage.

The two-car garage was outfitted with a video surveil-lance camera, which was focused on the door of the detached garage and part of the backyard area. The record is silent as to when the camera was installed. The camera allowed an occupant to monitor the area from a video screen inside the residence. This camera, however, would not allow someone to monitor activity inside the garage. The record does not disclose the size of the garage, although it does indicate that the garage had more than one room. At her deposition in this case, Ms. Wheeler testified that the garage contained tools, a go-cart, bicycles, a lawnmower, patio equipment, clothing and other items. The garage also contained propane tanks for a gas grill, fuel for the go-cart, paint, starter fluid and carburetor fluid. At her deposition, Ms. Wheeler further testified that she went to the garage about once a week and that her children used the garage with more frequency to access the bicycles and go-cart.

On April 5, Darren came to Ms. Wheeler's residence with Mark Dillard, Ms. Wheeler's cousin. The men told Ms. Wheeler that they were going to work on Mark's van in the garage. Ms. Wheeler did not go into the garage that day. She only had contact with Darren, who came inside the house to make himself lunch and dinner, although Darren ate by himself both times. The men worked in the garage from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. At 8:00 p.m., Darren informed Ms. Wheeler that he was leaving and that Mark was going to continue working on the van inside the garage. Shortly after Darren left, Ms. Wheeler called him to request that he buy her a pack of cigarettes.

Darren returned shortly thereafter with the requested cigarettes, and he ran into Rusty Dillard in the driveway of Ms. Wheeler's residence. Rusty is Mark's brother and Ms. Wheeler's cousin. Darren gave the cigarettes to Ms. Wheeler and left. Unbeknownst to Ms. Wheeler, Rusty Dillard joined Mark Dillard inside the garage.

Ms. Wheeler went to bed at approximately 10:30 or 11:00 p.m.; she testified that she had assumed that Mark had left the garage by this time. At about 1:00 a.m., Ms. Wheeler was awakened by a loud explosion that she subsequently described as sounding like "dynamite." R.33, Ex. A at 58. From her bedroom window, she saw smoke rolling out from the back of the garage. Ms. Wheeler called 911. Next, she called her husband, Darren, and her cousin, Mark Dillard, to inform them of the fire. Ms. Wheeler learned (for the first time) from Mark that Rusty had been in the garage that evening.

Detective Ronald Lawson of the Starke County Sheriff's Department arrived on the scene shortly thereafter. Two officers on the scene informed Detective Lawson that there was a body in the garage and that Ms. Wheeler had a video system set up for the garage area. Inside the garage, Detective Lawson noticed that the body was near the point of origin of the fire. In that area, there was a furnace, two propane tanks that were ruptured, thirty cans of starter fluid and lithium batteries that had been broken apart. Someone had used a can-opener to open the bottom of the starter fluid cans. Detective Lawson also found a clear plastic bag with a powdery substance that later was determined to be methamphetamine; autopsy tests performed on Rusty Dillard revealed the presence of methamphetamine in his system.*fn3

Detective Lawson noticed that the valves of the propane tanks had been altered, and, based on his prior experience, Detective Lawson knew that these tanks and the type of connection on them often are used in methamphetamine labs. The previous year, Detective Lawson had investigated a death caused during the explosion of a methamphetamine lab, and he had noted that the scene at Ms. Wheeler's garage had many of the same characteristics. For example, the propane cylinders contained ammonia residue commonly found in the form of anhydrous ammonia (liquid) farm fertilizer, and the debris on the floor near Rusty Dillard's body had a strong odor of ammonia. Inside the furnace, the police found battery casings and aluminum foil. Batteries are commonly broken apart to obtain lithium metal to assist in the methamphetamine manufacturing process; aluminum foil is commonly used to smoke methamphetamine. The Detective also searched the white Ford pick-up truck in Ms. Wheeler's driveway. The truck, which had been driven by Rusty Dillard, contained a full can of starter fluid.

Detective Lawson had only two brief talks with Ms. Wheeler, immediately before and immediately after the fire was extinguished. During these short conversations, Ms. Wheeler told the Detective that she did not know the cause of the fire, that she was not aware that Rusty Dillard had been inside the garage and that she was not aware of any methamphetamine production taking place on her property. Ms. Wheeler also informed Detective Lawson that she had called her husband to inform him of the fire; she mentioned to the Detective that she and Darren were separated. Detective Lawson otherwise did not interview Ms. Wheeler about the fire, the methamphetamine or the methamphetamine-related items found inside the garage. Prior to arresting her, Detective Lawson did not ask Ms. Wheeler whether she had any personal items in the garage, nor did he question her about her use of the garage. Detective Lawson spoke only briefly with Darren Wheeler on the night of the incident. Neither he nor any other officer conducted any follow-up inter-views with Darren. Detective Lawson never interviewed Mark Dillard, who was the last individual to see Rusty Dillard alive inside the garage.

The Detective subsequently signed an affidavit of probable cause;*fn4 an information was filed on June 9 charging Ms. Wheeler with maintaining a common nuisance, which is prohibited by Indiana Code ยง 35-48-4-13. About two weeks later, on June 22, Detective Lawson arrested her on the charge of maintaining a common nuisance. In November 2004, the ...


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