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Schmidt v. Hunsberger

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

March 17, 2015

HARALD SCHMIDT, Plaintiff,
v.
STEVEN HUNSBERGER, et al. Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

LIAM O'GRADY, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on two Motions to Dismiss the Complaint by Defendants Steven Hunsberger and John Burk. Dkt. Nos. 31, 37. Pro se Plaintiff Harald Schmidt has filed his responses in opposition. Dkt. Nos. 41, 42. Defendants have not filed any reply briefs. The Court heard oral argument on March 6, 2014. For the reasons set forth below, the motions will be granted.

I. Background

This controversy arises out of an investigation by two Prince William County police officers, Defendants Hunsberger and Burk, who are alleged to have violated Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights by unreasonably entering his apartment and seizing his computer. On March 23, 2014, Defendants arrived at Plaintiff's home, responding to a call regarding his possible possession of child pornography on his computer. Defendant Hunsberger was the first to arrive and was "invited in by a female representing herself as a roommate." Am. Compl. ¶ 6.[1] At some point thereafter, Defendant Burk arrived to the residence and was also let in. The woman led Defendants to Plaintiff's iMac computer, which was located in a "private bedroom."[2] Id. ¶ 15, Exs. B, C. Although not alleged in the complaints, Plaintiff represented to the Court during oral argument that he had invited this woman to sleep on the couch in this bedroom as a temporary guest.

The woman then proceeded to show Defendants the computer's search history, which revealed websites that possibly contained child pornography ( e.g., "exploitedteen.com"). Id. at Ex. C. Defendants then seized the computer, including the keyboard and mouse, and took the items to the police department's property and evidence room. Based on this investigation, Detective McAllister applied for a warrant to allow a search of the seized computer for evidence of child pornography. McAllister's affidavit in support of the warrant application allegedly included "false misleading statements" from Defendant Hunsberger, who "mer[e]ly belie[v]ed or had suspicion of illegal images on plaintiff's computer but had no evidence to support his statements given under oath to obtain a proper search warrant...." Id. ¶¶ 37, 43. The magistrate judge found probable cause and issued the warrant.

Based on the foregoing, on April 9, 2014, Plaintiff filed separate actions against the Defendants in the Prince William County General District Court. On August 21, 2014, the General District Court dismissed both actions. Plaintiff then appealed to the Prince William County Circuit Court. On October 21, 2014, Defendants removed their respective actions to this Court pursuant to federal question jurisdiction. On October 24, 2014, Defendants filed a motion to consolidate their cases, which the Court granted. Plaintiff subsequently appealed the consolidation order to the Fourth Circuit, which dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.

Plaintiff has since filed amended complaints against each Defendant. The amended complaint against Defendant Hunsberger contains three Bivens counts alleging violations of his Fourth Amendment rights, as well as three state law claims for invasion of privacy, trespass to chattels, and negligence/gross negligence for grand larceny, burglary, and theft. The amended complaint against Defendant Burk contains only the first two Bivens claims, in addition to the three state law claims.

II. Legal Standard

A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992). The Court must accept as true all well-pleaded factual allegations and draw all reasonable inferences in Plaintiff's favor. Tobey v. Jones, 706 F.3d 379, 383 (4th Cir. 2013). To survive a motion to dismiss, the complaint "must contain sufficient factual matter... to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A complaint "establish[es] facial plausibility by pleading factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Clatterbuck v. City of Charlottesville, 708 F.3d 549, 554 (4th Cir. 2013) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Moreover, a plaintiff must provide "more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

III. Analysis

Defendants have moved to dismiss the constitutional claims against them pursuant to the doctrine of qualified immunity, which shields government officials exercising discretionary functions "from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). Because "[q]ualified immunity is an entitlement not to stand trial or face the other burdens of litigation, " questions of immunity should be resolved "at the earliest possible stage in litigation." Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 200-01 (2001) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

To determine whether a complaint should survive a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity, courts follow the two-step inquiry laid out in Saucier : (1) whether "the pleaded facts demonstrate that the defendant's conduct violated a constitutional right"; and (2) "whether the right was clearly established." Blankenship v. Manchin, 471 F.3d 523, 528 (4th Cir. 2006). A right is "clearly established" if "it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.'" Gandy v. Robey, 520 F.Appx. 134, 140 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Saucier, 533 U.S. at 202). Furthermore, "although the exact conduct at issue need not have been held to be unlawful in order for the law governing an officer's actions to be clearly established, the existing authority must be such that the unlawfulness of the conduct is manifest." Wilson v. Layne, 141 F.3d 111, 114 (4th Cir. 1998), aff'd, 526 U.S. 603 (1999). It is undoubtedly a high standard, as it "protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Waterman v. Batton, 393 F.3d 471, 476 (4th Cir. 2005).

The resolution of Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claims turns on the following issues: (1) whether it would have been clear to a reasonable officer that entering Plaintiff's private bedroom and viewing his computer's search history on the basis of the consent of a person identifying herself as a "roommate" was unlawful under the circumstances; and (2) whether Plaintiff needs to identify a specific false statement within the search warrant affidavit to ...


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