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Houston v. Village of Calumet Park

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

July 26, 2019

Joshua Houston, Plaintiff,
v.
Village of Calumet Park, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ELAINE E. BUCKLO UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In September of 2014, plaintiff Joshua Houston was arrested and charged with the murder of Anthony McMillen. He was incarcerated for seventeen months before prosecutors dismissed the charge on the eve of trial, after witnesses recanted their testimony or refused to testify against him. Houston then filed this action claiming that the defendant police officers conspired to frame him for McMillen's murder and caused him to be arrested and imprisoned in violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendments of the United States Constitution and Illinois common law.[1] He names as defendants the Cities of Oak Forest and Blue Island, Illinois; the Villages of Calumet Park, Burnham, Lansing, and South Holland, Illinois; and individual officers of these municipalities whose conduct he claims was unlawful. Before me is defendants' joint motion to dismiss the complaint in its entirety. For the reasons that follow, the motion is granted.

         I.

         According to the second amended complaint (“SAC”) filed on April 20, 2017, plaintiff-whom the complaint describes only as “an eighteen-year old black student”-was standing with his friends, Keenan Holden, Antoine Hull, Devonte Jenkins, Jarod Houston, Marshawn Johnson, and Eric Neely, on a sidewalk near 126th Street and Elizabeth Street in the Village of Calumet Park on September 1, 2014. SAC at ¶¶ 1-2. A car approached the group, and Holden spit on the driver through the open window. Shortly thereafter, the driver's brother, Anthony McMillen, approached the group and asked, “who spit on my sister?” As McMillen reached toward his waistband, someone from the group shot and killed him. Id. at ¶¶ 31, 33.

         The gravamen of plaintiff's complaint is that defendants knew he was not the shooter but decided to pin the crime on him anyway. The SAC channels this theory into ten separate counts, captioned as follows: Count I-Fourth Amendment Unlawful Pretrial Detention; Count II-Fourth Amendment False Arrest; Count III-Fourth Amendment Malicious Prosecution; Count IV-Failure to Intervene 42 U.S.C. § 1983; Count V-Conspiracy 42 U.S.C. § 1983; Count VI-Malicious Prosecution; Count VII-Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress; Count VIII-Conspiracy; Count IX-Respondeat Superior; and Count X-Indemnification. In support of these claims, plaintiff recounts the following facts.

         At the Calumet City Police Department's request, the South Suburban Major Crime Task Force (“SSMCTF”)-an organization that comprises over fifty-four South Suburban Police Departments-began investigating McMillen's murder by dispatching various officers to the scene. Defendant David Nedved interviewed witness Tabitha Burton. Id. at ¶ 43. Burton reported that after hearing yelling outside her Elizabeth Street home, she looked out her front window and observed a black man walk in front of a black Monte Carlo and fire a gun at McMillen. She then saw the shooter and another black man run eastbound toward the alley between two homes. A third individual-“a male black with dreadlocks”-then approached McMillen and shot him in the head before leaving the scene in the Monte Carlo. Id. at ¶¶ 44-45.

         Nedved and defendant Chuck Leyden also interviewed Sandra Brown, another resident of Elizabeth Street. SAC at ¶ 55. Brown allegedly told the officers that after hearing gunshots, she looked out her front window and saw two black men running northbound, away from her house, with one suspect holding a gun. SAC at ¶¶ 55-56. The officers' interview notes state that Brown did not know if she could identify the individual with the gun. Id. at 56. According to the SAC, Nedved and Leyden “changed” Brown's observations in their police report to state that the men she saw were running southbound, not northbound, and that they ran past the side of her house. The reason for these changes, plaintiff claims, is that defendants “knew” Brown “could not ‘positively' identify the suspects if they were running northbound away from her house.” Id. at ¶ 58. The report states that Brown described two light-skinned individuals, 5'8” to 5'10” tall, with short hair, one of whom was holding a handgun. Id. at ¶ 59.[2]

         The following day, September 2, 2014, both Burton and Brown viewed photograph spreads and physical lineups to try to identify suspects. Burton was brought to the Calumet Park Police Department, where she allegedly saw plaintiff's brother, Jarod Houston, [3] and told “Officer Summers” and “ASA Spirrizi” (neither a defendant here) that Jarod “look[ed] just like” the man with dreadlocks who shot McMillen and drove off in the Monte Carlo.[4] SAC at ¶ 48. Burton viewed a physical lineup that included plaintiff, but she did not identify him as one of the shooters. Id. at ¶ 52. Brown, for her part, viewed two photograph spreads that included plaintiff but did not identify him as the individual she saw holding a gun. Id. at ¶¶ 60-61. Thereafter, however, Brown picked plaintiff out of a physical lineup as the person she saw with the gun. Id. at ¶ 62.

         According to the complaint, however, these identification procedures were manipulated to make it more likely that Burton and Brown would identify plaintiff as the shooter. Plaintiff claims that Nedved “prevented Ms. Burton from participating in a photograph or physical lineup that included Jarod Houston despite her positively identifying him as one of the shooters” and also “prevented [her] from participating in a photograph or a physical lineup that included Keenan Holden, Eric Neely, or Devonte Jenkins because [he] knew she would identify one of them as the shooter.” Id. at ¶¶ 50, 53. Similarly, Officers Nedved and Leyden “prevented” Brown from viewing photographs or a physical lineup that included Holden, Neely, or Jenkins “because she would likely identify one of them as the suspect holding the gun.” Id. at ¶ 63. And during the physical lineup before Brown, Nedved and Leyden “called Plaintiff individually to the two-way mirror in an overly suggestive and coercive manner, ” leading to Brown's identification of him as the gun-holder. Id. at ¶ 62. Plaintiff claims that these identification procedures were part of “a concerted effort to falsely arrest and charge Plaintiff with the murder of McMillen.” Id. at ¶¶ 63-64.

         According to the SAC, SSMCTF officers interrogated Keenan Holden several times during their investigation. During his initial interview on the day of the incident, Holden admitted to defendant Gregory Okon and other officers that he had spit on the woman in the car, but he denied any knowledge of the shooting. SAC at ¶ 66. Okon allegedly “threatened Holden with physical violence and stated that he would be charged with McMillen's murder if he did not ‘identify' the shooter.” SAC at ¶ 67. Thereafter, Holden stated that as he was leaving the scene, he saw plaintiff fire a blue steel revolver at McMillen. Holden also stated that he and plaintiff left the scene in a vehicle, and that plaintiff discarded the gun on Racine Avenue. Id. at ¶ 68. Plaintiff claims that these statements were false, and that “continued investigation” by Okon and others revealed inaccuracies in Holden's account. Id. at ¶ 69. (The complaint does not say when these “inaccuracies” were discovered.)

         In the afternoon of September 2, 2014, defendant Calumet Park Police Officer Mario Smith and other officers arrested plaintiff for murder. SAC at ¶ 81. Plaintiff was transported for questioning to the Blue Island Police Department, where he consistently “denied any involvement in the shooting death of McMillen.” Id. at ¶ 83. Meanwhile, in further interviews conducted the evening of September 2, 2014, Holden allegedly provided “an accurate statement of what occurred, ” telling officers (though not any named in this suit) that “Debo, ” i.e., Jenkins, fired a gun at McMillen before fleeing in a vehicle along with Johnson, Hull, and one Malcolm Shorters. Id. at ¶¶ 70-72. Realizing that Holden's “accurate statement” would “jeopardize their decision to arrest Plaintiff as the shooter, ” however, defendants Okon, Daley, and Rodriguez continued Holden's interrogation the following day, September 3, 2014. Id. at ¶ 75. During that interrogation, these defendants “threatened Holden with physical violence and stated that he would be charged with murder if he failed to identify Plaintiff as the shooter, ” and they allegedly fed him a “description of the alleged murder weapon” based on a photograph recovered from another suspect's cellphone. Id. at ¶ 76-77. (The SAC does not say what statements, if any, Holden made as a result of these threats and suggestions.) Electronic searches conducted between September 2 and September 4, 2014, of various individuals' cellular phones allegedly produced no evidence that plaintiff was the shooter. Id. at ¶ 84.

         On September 4, 2014, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office (“CCSAO”) approved a murder charge against plaintiff. SAC at ¶ 86. According to the SAC, “[t]he CCSAO decision to approve murder charges against Plaintiff was a result of Defendants['] purposeful and malicious conduct of falsifying reports, fabricating evidence, and deliberately withholding or concealing exculpatory evidence in a concerted effort to mislead and misdirect the criminal prosecution of Plaintiff.” Id. The prosecutor subpoenaed Burton, Brown, and Holden to testify at plaintiff's trial on January 13, 2016; but on the day of trial, each of these witnesses “either recanted their prior statements or restated Plaintiff's lack of involvement in the shooting.” Id. at ¶ 89. Accordingly, the CCSAO dismissed all charges against him. This lawsuit followed.

         II.

         A central theme of defendants' motion to dismiss is that the allegations in the SAC establish affirmatively that probable cause existed for plaintiff's arrest and detention, eviscerating the bulk of his claims. Indeed, probable cause “is an absolute defense to any claim under Section 1983 against police officers for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment, or malicious prosecution.” Mustafa v. City of Chicago, 442 F.3d 544, 547 (7th Cir. 2006); see also Stokes v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of Chicago, 599 F.3d 617, 626 (7th Cir. 2010) (same under Illinois law). That the officers “allegedly acted upon a malicious motive” does not alter this rule. Mustafa, 442 F.3d at 547. A plaintiff asserting such claims may plead ...


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