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Lipford v. City of Chicago

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

July 19, 2018

CITY OF CHICAGO, et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff Michael Lipford and Defendants Guy Dailey, Leif Goff, and Bernard Veleta proceeded to a jury trial on Plaintiff's claims that Defendants violated his constitutional rights when they entered and searched his apartment, arrested him, and seized three firearms and $850 in September 2013. At the close of all evidence, Defendants orally moved for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a). This Court heard oral arguments from both sides. For the reasons stated in open court on June 12, 2018, and explained more fully below, this Court partially granted and partially denied Defendants' motion.

         I. Legal Standard

         After a party presents all of its evidence on an issue during a jury trial, the court may grant judgment as a matter of law if “a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a). The court must assess the evidence as a whole, drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Hall v. Forest River, Inc., 536 F.3d 615, 619 (7th Cir. 2008). The court may not make credibility determinations or weigh evidence. Whitehead v. Bond, 680 F.3d 919, 925-26 (7th Cir. 2012).

         II. Analysis

         The evidence at trial consisted of testimony from all four parties, a testimonial stipulation from an employee with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a factual stipulation that Defendants acted under color of law, and the following exhibits (all admitted without objection): multiple photos of Plaintiff's apartment taken after the incident, a state court order for the return of Plaintiff's firearms, Plaintiff's arrest report, Plaintiff's criminal case incident report, and a Chicago Police Department (CPD) property turnover sheet for Plaintiff's firearms.

         A. Searches of Plaintiff's Safes

         Plaintiff kept two safes in his room-a big safe and a small safe-that he claimed Defendants searched in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Warrantless searches presumptively violate the Fourth Amendment, see Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27, 31 (2001), but a person's voluntary consent to a search of his property generally renders a warrantless search reasonable, see United States v. Wright, 838 F.3d 880, 884 (7th Cir. 2016).

         As to the big safe, Plaintiff testified that he opened the safe only because Defendants pressured him, including by threatening that he would go to jail if he did not open it. In contrast, Defendants testified that they did not pressure Plaintiff and that he opened the safe of his own accord to search for his FOID card.

         As to the small safe, Plaintiff testified that Defendants removed him from his bedroom at some point to hold him in the living room, and that the small safe remained intact then. When Plaintiff returned to his apartment after spending a few days in jail, he saw that someone had opened the small safe with a crowbar. Plaintiff's arrest report, which Goff wrote, describes the contents of Plaintiff's big safe and then states that “A/O's [sic] gained entry to another safe.” The arrest report's opening line reads: “In summary A/O's [sic] while conducting a probation check with Cook County Probation Officers did a check” at Plaintiff's apartment.

         Defendants testified that “A/Os” means “arresting officers, ” and Veleta demonstrated that the arrest report lists eight “Assisting Arresting Officers, ” including the probation officers who accompanied Defendants to Plaintiff's apartment. During their testimony, Defendants all denied opening the small safe and suggested that probation officers opened it.

         Considering all of the evidence regarding these searches and drawing all reasonable inferences in Plaintiff's favor, Hall, 536 F.3d at 619, a reasonable jury could have found for Plaintiff on both searches by crediting Plaintiff's testimony and drawing certain inferences in Plaintiff's favor, [1] see Wright, 838 F.3d at 884. The record contained no evidence of search warrants, and under Plaintiff's version of events, he did not voluntarily consent to opening either safe. Although Plaintiff did not see who opened the small safe, a reasonable jury could have inferred from the arrest report's opening line-which distinguished between A/Os and Cook County probation officers (CCP)-that the later reference to A/Os gaining entry to the small safe meant that Defendants opened it. Thus, factual issues remained for the jury, and this Court denied Defendants' motion as to the searches of the safes.

         B. Seizure of $850

         Plaintiff also claimed that he had $850 in cash that Defendants stole in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. Absent consent or another recognized exception to the warrant requirement, warrantless seizures of property violate the Fourth Amendment. See United States v. James, 571 F.3d 707, 713 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 701 (1983)). Under that standard, police officers would plainly violate the Fourth Amendment if they stole money from someone's home while acting under color of law. See id.

         Plaintiff testified that he kept $850 in cash in a red pouch inside the big safe. He also testified that Goff told him to put the pouch on top of the safe at some point. When Plaintiff returned to his apartment after several days in jail, he realized that someone had taken the pouch. Plaintiff did not see anyone take the money, but he testified that Defendants spent more time investigating his bedroom with CCP after they removed him from the room. Defendants testified that they never saw a red pouch or any loose cash in the big safe.

         Considering all of the evidence regarding the money and drawing all reasonable inferences in Plaintiff's favor, Hall, 536 F.3d at 619, a reasonable jury could have found for Plaintiff on his money-seizure claim, see James, 571 F.3d at 713. Although Plaintiff's evidence regarding Defendants' personal involvement in any theft was-to say the least-not compelling, Defendants' counsel conceded that the parties' conflicting stories about the money created a question of fact for the jury.[2] Thus, this Court denied Defendants' motion as to the seizure of the $850.

         C. Entry into Plaintiff's Apartment

         Plaintiff claimed that Defendants violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they entered his apartment with CCP to look for his roommate, Deandre Norfleet, a probationer. In seeking a directed verdict, Defendants invoked qualified immunity for Plaintiff's unlawful entry claim.[3]

         The doctrine of qualified immunity “balances two important interests-the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009). Thus, qualified immunity protects officers who make “mere mistakes” of law, fact, or a mix of the two. Id.

         When a defendant invokes qualified immunity, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show two things: (1) that the defendant violated a statutory or constitutional right; and (2) that the right was “clearly established” at the time of the challenged conduct. See Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 735 (2011). A court may address the prongs in whichever order it prefers. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236. The defendant merits qualified immunity if the plaintiff fails to meet his burden on either prong. Green v. Newport, 868 F.3d 629, 633 (7th Cir. 2017).

         “Clearly established” means that existing precedent “placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate” at the time of the alleged violation. Id. Plaintiff must show that “every reasonable official would understand” that his actions violated a given right. Id. Crucially, a plaintiff cannot succeed by identifying clearly established law “at a high level of generality” not “particularized” to the facts of his case. White v. Pauly, 137 S.Ct. 548, 552 (2017). Particularity becomes even more significant in the Fourth Amendment context, where the Supreme Court has recognized that officers often struggle “to determine how the relevant legal doctrine” applies to “the factual situation” they confront. Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308 (2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         At summary judgment, Defendants did not invoke qualified immunity for the entry. See [106] at 5-6 (Defendants merely hinted that Norfleet's status as a probationer gave Plaintiff limited grounds to challenge the entry). Moreover, at the summary judgment stage, neither side provided evidence of the conditions of Norfleet's probation-such as whether probation officers could search his home at ...

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