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Watkins v. Martin

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois

April 29, 2015

Victor Watkins (#B-37732), Plaintiff,
v.
Anthony Martin, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

JAMES B. ZAGEL, District Judge.

Plaintiff Victor Watkins, an Illinois prisoner, brought this 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 action against Chicago Police Officer Anthony Martin, alleging that Defendant Martin arrested him without probable cause. This matter is before the Court on Defendant's motion to dismiss Plaintiff's amended complaint. For the following reasons, the motion is denied. This case, however, is stayed pending resolution of Plaintiff's underlying criminal proceedings.

Background

Plaintiff Victor Watkins brought this pro se federal civil rights action against Chicago Police Officer Martin, arising from events that precipitated Plaintiff's criminal conviction for theft. According to Plaintiff and documents attached to his amended complaint, on April 8, 2013, Plaintiff was attending a closed alcoholics' anonymous meeting on the City's south side, when Defendant entered the meeting and arrested Plaintiff for burglary. The crime for which Plaintiff was arrested had been reported nearly two years earlier and allegedly involved "some items missing" from the victim's "perfectly intact car." The police report, however, shows that the victim's vehicle had been broken into and items valued at over $1, 200 had been taken from the vehicle without the victim's permission. The passenger-side door was open at the time the crime was discovered, and blood was found on the inside handle of that door. DNA tests performed on the blood returned a match to Plaintiff but the DNA report noted, "[d]o not arrest solely on the basis of this DNA information." No arrest warrant had issued at the time of Plaintiff's arrest. According to Plaintiff, Defendant arrested him solely on the basis of the DNA report.

Plaintiff was convicted of theft following a bench trial and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. Plaintiff is appealing his conviction.

Discussion

Defendant moves to dismiss Plaintiff's amended complaint on three grounds. First, Defendant argues that Plaintiff failed to state a claim for false arrest because, according to Defendant, Plaintiff pleaded facts showing that Defendant had probable cause to arrest Plaintiff. Second, Defendant argues that Plaintiff's false arrest claim constitutes a collateral attack on Plaintiff's conviction and therefore is barred by the doctrine set forth in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). Third, Defendant argues that his actions are shielded by qualified immunity because (1) at the time of Plaintiff's arrest, no clearly established right not to be arrested based on a positive DNA match existed; and (2) any reasonable officer in Defendant's shoes would have believed there was probable cause to arrest Plaintiff.

It is well-established that pro se complaints are to be liberally construed. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); McCormick v. City of Chicago, 230 F.3d 319, 325 (7th Cir. 2000). A court may dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim only if the plaintiff did not plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Ail. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). When considering whether to dismiss a complaint, a court must accept as true the complaint's well-pleaded factual allegations and draw all reasonable inference in the plaintiff's favor. Brooks v. Ross, 578 F.3d 574, 581 (7th Cir. 2009). A plaintiff may, however, plead himself out of court by pleading facts showing that his claim is without merit. Atkins v. City of Chicago, 631 F.3d 823, 832 (7th Cir. 2011).

When deciding a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the Court may consider documents attached to the plaintiff's pleading without converting the motion into a motion for summary judgment. Wigod v. Wells Fargo Bank N.A., 673 F.3d 547, 556 (7th Cir. 2012). The Court may also consider documents referenced in the plaintiff's pleading so long as the documents are central to the plaintiff's claims. See Cancer Found, Inc. v. Cerberus Capital Mgmt., 559 F.3d 671, 675 n.l (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Venture Assoc. Corp. v. Zenith Data Sys. Corp, 987 F.2d 429, 431 (7th Cir. 1993)).

A. Probable Cause

Defendant first argues that Plaintiff failed to state a claim for false arrest because Plaintiff pleaded facts showing that Defendant had probable cause to arrest Plaintiff. Probable cause is an absolute defense to a claim of false arrest under section 1983. Sow v. Fortville Police Dept., 636 F.3d 293, 301-02 (7th Cir. 2011); McBride v. Grice, 576 F.3d 703, 707 (7th Cir. 2009). A police officer has probable cause to make an arrest when the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time of the arrest would cause a reasonable person to believe that the suspect has committed or is committing a crime. Matthews v. City of E. St. Louis, 675 F.3d 703, 706 (7th Cir. 2012). A probable cause determination "typically falls within the province of the jury" and is appropriate for a court to conclude as a matter of law only "when there is no room for a difference of opinion concerning the facts or the reasonable inferences to be drawn from them." Sheik-Abdi v. McClellan, 37 F.3d 1240, 1246 (7th Cir. 1994).

The record is insufficient for the Court to determine as a matter of law whether probable cause existed or not at the time of Plaintiff s arrest. Even though Plaintiff alleges that Defendant arrested him solely on the basis of the DNA match, Plaintiff's belief concerning the facts known to the arresting officer are insufficient to establish probable cause or the lack thereof. Instead, the inquiry is on what the arresting officer knew at the time of the arrest, and at this time, the record is not developed enough to show all the facts known to Defendant at the time of Plaintiff's arrest.

Defendant also identified no case law similar enough to the facts presented by this case to prevail on his argument that Plaintiff pleaded himself out of court on the issue of probable cause. For example, in Myles v. Laterzo, No. 08-CV-202, 2009 WL 1437574, at *1 (N.D. Ind. May 20, 2009), the court found probable cause to support the plaintiff's arrest where DNA and fingerprints recovered from the scene of a robbery returned a match to the plaintiff. In particular, reports of two eyewitnesses to the crime showed that the perpetrator handcuffed two store employees during commission of the offense. Id. Fingerprints recovered from the handcuffs and DNA recovered from latex gloves left at the crime scene returned a positive match to the plaintiff. Id. at *4. On initial screening, the court concluded that probable cause for the arrest existed because "forensic test results positively, if not absolutely, pointed to the [p]laintiff." Id. The court's reasoning in Myles, however, only applies to this case if it is taken out of context because the record in Myles shows that eyewitness testimony linked the items on which the DNA was found with the plaintiff and commission of the offense. No such facts have been pleaded here.

Similarly, in United States v. Johnson, No. 11-CR-139, 2012 WL 1998046, at *l-2 (N.D. Ind. June 4, 2012), the court found probable cause existed to issue a search warrant where DNA recovered from gloves used during a robbery returned a match to the criminal defendant. Specifically, witnesses reported that the perpetrators of the robbery were wearing clear latex gloves. Id. at *1. The criminal defendant's DNA subsequently was found on a pair of red-stained, clear latex gloves that were recovered one block away from where the get-away car and stolen money (which also had been stained red by an exploded dye pack) were abandon. Id. Thus, like in Myles, the record before ...


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