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Baker v. Ghidotti

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

March 28, 2014




Before the Court are three Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. For the reasons stated herein, each Summary Judgment Motion is granted in part and denied in part. Also pending are various Motions to Strike, all of which are denied as moot.


This case arises out of attempts by Defendant Reliable Recovery Services, Inc. and its employee, Timothy Ghidotti (collectively, the "Recovery Defendants"), to repossess a Chevrolet Impala owned by Juanita Horton. Ms. Horton is the stepdaughter of Plaintiff Kenneth Baker ("Baker"). Around 4:30 a.m. on January 11, 2010, Ghidotti went to the Baker house looking for the Impala. When he knocked on the front door, the door came open and a security alarm went off. Ghidotti saw several officers of the Chicago Police Department ("CPD") down the street, so he got the officers to talk to Baker, who told them that there was a problem with the front door. Ghidotti spoke with a woman at the Baker home who told him that Juanita Horton did not live there but did stay there occasionally.

The next day, at 6:30 a.m., thirteen-year-old Plaintiff Ashley Baker ("Ashley") emerged from a shower and saw a white man peering in through the window of the Baker back door. Ashley heard this man go down the back outdoor stairs, close the gate to the yard, and come up the front stairs to the home. Ashley was so terrified that she ran into a closet to hide and could not stop herself from urinating all over herself and her clothes. For reasons that are not entirely clear, she then ran outside into the Chicago winter wearing nothing but her soiled pajamas. Ashley's older brother, Oliver Johnson, was driving to the Baker house to give Ashley a ride to school and saw her running down the street. Oliver helped the distraught Ashley back to the house, where they found a business card from a company with the name "Recovery" in it. Ghidotti does not remember whether he went to the Baker house that day, and stated that he never would have looked through the window of a back door.

Two weeks later, on January 27, the ADT alarm company contacted Baker to tell him that the alarm at the Baker home had been activated. The police arrived and found the front door wide open, so they entered with guns drawn, which woke and frightened Plaintiffs Ashley and Camden Baker.

In the middle of the night on February 1, 2010, Ghidotti arrived at the Baker house looking for the Impala. Even though the car was nowhere to be seen, Ghidotti rang the doorbell. Baker answered the door and Ghidotti asked about Juanita and the Impala. Baker told Ghidotti that Juanita did not live there. Ashley Baker looked out the window and recognized Ghidotti as the man who had been peering through the back door on January 12. Ghidotti testified that Baker disappeared for a moment and returned holding a gun, although the gun was barely visible. Baker and his family all testified that Baker was not holding a gun, and police officers testified that Ghidotti later told them that he did not actually see a gun but just believed, based on Baker's demeanor, that Baker was holding one. Either way, Baker shouted at Ghidotti to get off his porch, saying such things as "get the hell off my porch" and "don't come back on my property no more." Apparently, Baker also said that if Ghidotti kept coming back looking for the car, he would "have something for him." There is no suggestion that Baker pointed a gun at Ghidotti or made any threatening movements or gestures.

Ghidotti returned to his truck and called 911. He told the dispatcher that he had been threatened by a man with a gun. Defendants Jean Lindgren and Jesus Vera, both CPD officers, arrived at the scene. Lindgren and Vera spoke with Ghidotti, who told them that he thought Baker had been holding a handgun, although he caught only a glimpse of it and could not offer many specifics - in his deposition, Ghidotti could not decide whether he had seen part of the trigger or part of the barrel. Lindgren and Vera knocked on the front door to determine whether Baker knew anything about the missing vehicle. More officers arrived at the scene, including Sergeant Steven Martin. The officers asked Baker for identification, and he presented a Firearm Owner's Identification ("FOID") Card, although the parties dispute whether the card was valid or expired.

The parties agree that the police entered the home but dispute the circumstances that led them to do so. Sergeant Martin says that he asked Baker if he could step inside to get out of the cold, and Baker allowed him in. Lindgren and Vera were a few feet away and could not hear anything, but nonetheless did not hear Baker give them permission to enter. According to Baker, Martin and another officer came running up the front stairs, pushed Baker out of the way, opened the screen door and inner door, and barged into the Baker house uninvited. Plaintiffs testified that Sergeant Martin and Officers Lindgren and Vera corralled the Baker family into one room and began scouring the house. To prevent the police from tearing up his house any further, Baker informed Martin that he owned a gun and stored it in his bedroom, under his mattress. Martin retrieved a shotgun from the bedroom.

Martin then went outside to speak with Ghidotti. It appears that at that point, Ghidotti denied that he had seen a shotgun and informed these officers that he did not actually see a gun, but believed based on Baker's demeanor and actions that Baker was holding a gun. The CPD "incident report" from that night reflects that Ghidotti told the police that he did not actually see Baker holding a gun. Sergeant Martin testified that he does not believe that as a police officer he is supposed to determine whether an alleged victim's story is credible, except in extreme situations.

Martin next engaged in some back and forth negotiations between Baker and Ghidotti. When at the car, Martin asked Ghidotti whether he wanted to press charges, and Ghidotti said that he would decline to press charges if Baker told him where the car was. Martin returned to the house and relayed this proposition to Baker, but Baker either did not know or did not offer any information about the car. Baker testified that Martin shuttled between him and Ghidotti four times. At one point, Martin tried unsuccessfully to talk Ghidotti out of signing a complaint against Baker. When Martin came back to the house after talking to Ghidotti for the last time, Martin relayed to Baker that Ghidotti intended to sign a complaint. Baker was then arrested for aggravated assault.

It is unclear exactly how much time elapsed, but it appears that the Defendant Officers were probably in the home for at least twenty minutes, if not longer. Plaintiffs testified that they were detained in their living room during this time.

The police took Baker to the police station, where Lindgren and Vera inventoried the shotgun and were told by "someone at the gun desk" that the shotgun was not registered properly. Lindgren testified that when they arrested Baker, they did not have any reason to think that the gun was not registered properly. At the station, however, a charge of having an expired gun registration was added. Baker attended nine court hearings in two different courts before the charges of aggravated assault and possession of a firearm with an expired registration were dismissed.

Plaintiffs have submitted evidence of the distress they suffered in the wake of these events. Baker works two jobs that require security clearance: one for the City of Chicago in the Aviation Department (one of his responsibilities is meeting Air Force One to let the president on and off the plane) and another with J.B. Hunt Transportation where he helps transport poison gas, explosives, and other hazardous or dangerous materials. Baker's arrest was picked up promptly by Homeland Security, and the arrest and prosecution threatened his security clearance and credentials. Baker feared for his jobs and his safety. Baker also worried about the toll that these events took on his daughter, Ashley. Baker has suffered from crying fits and lost sleep.

As to the other Plaintiffs, Barbara Baker testified that she is upset and angry and stays up all night because she cannot sleep. She lost her job because she fell asleep at the wheel of a company van. Ashley Baker was distraught at the series of events in this case: the incident with someone who may have been Ghidotti peering through a window after her shower, the police waking her up at gunpoint, the police searching her house, and her father's arrest. In addition to the trauma described above, she suffered bed-wetting, fear of being alone (which led her to sleep on the floor of her parents' bedroom for four months), anger at authority, failing grades, and fights and suspensions at school. Camden Baker, like his sister, was upset that he was woken up and gunpoint and had to watch the police search his house. He had trouble sleeping and, when he did sleep, he suffered from nightmares. He was so afraid of the police returning to the house that he moved out and visits only rarely.


Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). The Court construes all facts and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 586 (2009).

A. Defendants Cabrales and Flores

Defendant Officers Cabrales and Flores move for summary judgment on the ground that they were neither at the scene nor involved in the incident. By this, they mean that they were in their police vehicle on the street near the Baker house but never left the vehicle and did not interact with Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs oppose this Motion and note that multiple witnesses, including Ghidotti and Plaintiffs, testified that somewhere between six and nine officers entered and searched the home. Plaintiffs offer no identifying characteristics for those other officers whom they saw enter the house. They hope to prove circumstantially that Cabrales and Flores - who concede that they were in their police car parked at the curb - were some of the other officers who entered the house. This argument relies entirely on speculation, and "[i]nferences that are supported only by speculation or conjecture will not defeat a summary judgment motion." McDonald v. Village of Winnetka, 371 F.3d 992, 1001 (7th Cir. 2004); Billups v. Kinsella, No. 08 CV 3365, 2010 WL 5110121 (N.D. Ill.Dec. 9, 2010) (speculative evidence linking police officer to the alleged violation "is not enough to allow the claim to proceed to trial"). Summary judgment is granted in favor of Defendants Cabrales and Flores on all counts for which they are named.

B. Search

Defendants Lindgren, Vera, Martin, and Walsh (the "Defendant Officers") argue that they are entitled to summary judgment on the Fourth Amendment search claim because Baker consented to the search. However, it is quite clear that the parties dispute the circumstances of the police entry to the house and the subsequent search of the bedroom, where Martin found the shotgun. Both Baker and Camden testified that Martin and one of the police officers ran up the front stairs, pushed Baker out of the way, and barged into the house. ECF No. 105-5 at 70:15-18. Plaintiffs testified that Defendants began searching the house, and Baker told them where his gun was hidden only because he did not want them to tear up his entire house. Id. at 73:15-20. Consent is an exception to both the warrant requirement and the probable cause requirement, but consent must be given voluntarily. See, Bumper v. North Carolina, 391 U.S. 543, 548 (1968). Genuine factual disputes preclude the Court from concluding whether the entry of the home and the search for the gun were reasonable based on valid consent.

Plaintiffs move for summary judgment on the ground that even if the entry was consensual, the scope and duration of the police occupation of the home made the search unreasonable. But it is difficult to evaluate this argument without knowing the circumstances under which the Defendants entered the house. As discussed above, Martin testified that Baker invited him in, but Baker testified that Martin and another officer barged in uninvited. Martin testified that none of the officers searched the house except for when Baker told Martin where the gun could be found. Plaintiffs all testified that the officers were rummaging through the entire house. Thus, it is unclear how long the police were in the house, what took place during that time, and whether Baker allowed the police into the house in the first place. A twenty-minute stay could have been reasonable, depending on the circumstances. With critical facts disputed, the Court cannot grant summary judgment for either party on the Fourth Amendment search claim.

C. False Arrest

The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the false arrest claim, asking the Court to determine whether the arrest was supported by probable cause. "Probable cause to justify an arrest exists if the totality of the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time of the arrest would warrant a reasonable, prudent person in believing that the arrestee had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime." Abbott v. Sangamon County, Ill., 705 F.3d 706, 714 (7th Cir. 2013). Probable cause does not require evidence sufficient to sustain a conviction or to demonstrate that it is more likely than not that the suspect committed a crime. United States v. Sawyer, 224 F.3d 675, 679 (7th Cir. 2000). Probable cause exists where the totality of the circumstances reveals a substantial chance that the suspect was engaged in criminal activity. Id.

In this case, the underlying crime was aggravated assault, and Defendants do not argue that they had probable cause to arrest Baker for any other crimes. In Illinois, an individual commits assault when he "knowingly engages in conduct which places another in reasonable apprehension of receiving a battery." 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/12-1(a). Assault involves either a threatening gesture or an otherwise innocent gesture made threatening by accompanying words, such that it creates a reasonable apprehension of an imminent battery. Kijonka v. Seitzinger, 363 F.3d 645, 647 (7th Cir. 2004).

Here, the proffered basis for probable cause was that Baker threatened Ghidotti with a gun and then Ghidotti felt threatened. Of course, it is not enough that the victim feel threatened, as that feeling "must have a measure of objective reasonableness." People v. Floyd, 663 N.E.2d 74, 76 (Ill.App.Ct. 1996). And it is not enough to say that Baker threatened Ghidotti, because that argument assumes the conclusion: that there was a threat. Rather, the Court must consider "the words employed by the person charged with assault." Id. Here, Baker said such things as "get the hell off my porch" and "don't come back on my property no more." Baker also apparently said that if Ghidotti kept coming back looking for the car, he would "have something for him." Even if these words are taken to mean that Baker would shoot Ghidotti if Ghidotti ever returned, these words do not add up to a threat because they speak to ...

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