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Cunningham v. Ruffin

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

October 27, 2016

Maria Cunningham, Plaintiff,
Officer H.M. Ruffin, III, Defendant.


          Liam O Grady United States District Judge

         This matter comes before the Court on a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendant Officer H.M. Ruffin, III. Dkt. No. 24. Plaintiff, Maria Cunningham alleges that she was subject to false arrest and excessive force in violation of rights conferred by the Fourth Amendment, and gross negligence under state law, when detained by the Defendant during a November 16, 2013 interaction with police. Defendant contends in the instant Motion that he did not violate Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights and in any case is entitled to qualified immunity with respect to constitutional claims and sovereign immunity with respect to state law claims. For the reasons discussed below, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion.

         I. Background

         On the evening of November 16, 2013, Plaintiff was traveling in a car driven by her boyfriend, Dennis Ashton. Plaintiff and Ashton got into an argument and Plaintiff got out of the car and told Ashton that she would walk home-approximately three miles away. Plaintiff was taking medication at the time for anxiety and had recently had her dosage increased. After Plaintiff left the vehicle, Ashton went to the nearby Herndon, VA police station to ask the police for assistance in getting Plaintiff home. Ashton spoke with Sergeant Claudio Saa who took down information about Plaintiff and the nature of the argument between Ashton and Plaintiff. He then instructed the dispatcher to air the incident on police radio. Defendant responded to the dispatch call and identified Plaintiff in a nearby parking lot. Officers Trent Ashman and Detective Jeffrey Lange also responded to the call and arrived at the scene contemporaneously, followed shortly after by Sergeant Saa and Ashton.

         Defendant approached Plaintiff and the conversation between them was captured in part on Defendant's body microphone. Dkt. No. 25, Ex. 25A. The recording begins with Plaintiff, slurring her words, asking Defendant to turn off the emergency lights on the police cruiser. Defendant did so. Defendant then asked Plaintiff what was going on and she began to cry and told Plaintiff to "ask her son" and that "she had been in the hospital three times" because "he is very violent." Defendant asked Plaintiff to identify who was violent and she identified Ashton. She said that Ashton had pulled her hair that evening. She added that she could "put him [Ashton] in jail if she wanted to." Defendant asked Plaintiff where she lived and she responded "I thought everyone knows where I live in Herndon."

         After speaking with Plaintiff, Defendant and the other officers identified Plaintiff as the individual investigated for multiple hit-and-run incidents on September 25, 2013. Plaintiff was arrested on the hit-and-runs in September 2013, jailed until November 1, 2013, and pleaded guilty to driving under the influence on November 15, 2013, the day before the altercation at issue in this case. While the parties dispute the precise amount of alcohol that Plaintiff was consuming prior to her arrest for the hit-and-runs, Plaintiff previously testified to drinking a bottle of wine two or three times a week leading up to her hit-and-run incident. The police report from that arrest also identified a previous DUI conviction in 2009.

         The body microphone recording continues for another two minutes but the microphone picks up no further sound. During the recorded portion of the conversation, Plaintiff answered all of the questions asked by Defendant but on numerous occasions appeared to be slurring her words, crying and stuttering in her answers. There is no evidence that a field sobriety test was conducted on Plaintiff at this time, but Defendant and the other officers at the scene attested to smelling alcohol on Plaintiffs breath. Ashton and Plaintiff deny that she had consumed alcohol that day.

         Following the events captured on the body microphone, Defendant attempted to contact Plaintiffs son, Christopher Cunningham, whose contact information was in the police department database as a result of the investigation following the hit-and-run incident. A voicemail was left with Mr. Cunningham in which Defendant identified himself, explained that Plaintiff was highly intoxicated, and that he was hoping to not arrest her but would have to do so if he did not get a response because Plaintiff refused to go with Ashton. The officers did not receive a response from Mr. Cunningham and ultimately arrested Plaintiff for being intoxicated in public, a violation of Herndon Virginia Code of Ordinances Sec. 46-16. Defendant handcuffed Plaintiff and the parties disagree as to whether Plaintiff resisted or submitted to the detention and whether she informed the officers that she had undergone surgery for torn rotator cuffs in both shoulders in 2013. The parties agree that Plaintiff was cuffed with her hands behind her back pursuant to Herndon police policy. She was subsequently placed in the police cruiser, driven to the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center and presented before a magistrate who issued warrants for both public intoxication and for disorderly conduct. Defendant then called Mr. Cunningham and left him a second voicemail advising him of Plaintiff s detention, that he had contacted the Woodburn Mental Health facility because he believed that Plaintiff needed mental health assistance and that Defendant would be released at 5:30 AM the next morning. Plaintiff was released at 5:30 AM and took a cab home from the detention center. There is no record of a sobriety test (blood, breath or otherwise) during Plaintiffs detention.

         Defendant presented evidence of Plaintiff s conduct during the time after Plaintiff was placed in the cruiser until she departed the detention center the next morning. Plaintiff objects to these facts as "prejudicial and not probative" but does not challenge the veracity of the claims. Defendant avers that Plaintiff resisted placement in the police cruiser. After being placed in the cruiser, Plaintiff continued to scream and swear while slurring her words as captured by the audio recording equipment in the police cruiser. Dkt. No. 25, Exh. 25B. Plaintiff complained that Ashton had a firearm at the home that he would hide. She threatened to take her own life. For much of the audio recording the content of the recording is indiscernible because Plaintiff is shouting swear words at the officers and sobbing. Upon arrival at the detention center, Plaintiff resisted removal from the cruiser and spat and kicked at the assisting officers-necessitating the use of a "spit net" over her face and a hobble tie around her feet. At one point before appearing in front of the magistrate, Plaintiff began hopping up and down and saying "I am so drunk.. ..drunk, drunk, drunk." Plaintiff continued to resist the efforts of the officers to transport her from the appearance before the magistrate to an overnight holding cell.

         Plaintiff ultimately pleaded no contest to the charges arising out of the November 16, 2013 incident, accepted an amended charge of trespassing, and her public intoxication charge was nolle prossed. Her matter was continued for one year conditioned on good behavior and was dismissed in May 2015 on the one year date.

         Plaintiff filed her complaint in late 2015 alleging that there was no probable cause for her arrest and that excessive force was employed in the arrest, each act in violation of the Fourth Amendment and gross negligence under state law. Defendant removed the action to this Court on December 14, 2015. The parties have conducted discovery and completed their final pre-trial conference and this Motion was fully briefed by the parties.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). As the Supreme Court has explained, "this standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original). A dispute over an issue of material fact is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. at 248. Finally, in making a summary judgment determination, the Court must bear in mind that "[a] complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the non-moving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

         III. Discussion

         Defendant moves for Summary Judgment arguing that he had probable cause to arrest Plaintiff and did not use excessive force in executing that arrest. Furthermore Defendant argues that he is entitled to qualified immunity with respect to the Fourth Amendment claims and sovereign immunity with respect to the state law claims. For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that Defendant did ...

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