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Johnson v. Holmes

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division

October 19, 2017



          Hon. Glen E. Conrad United States District Judge

         Bianca Johnson and Delmar Canada filed this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Andrew Holmes, a police officer employed by the Albemarle County Police Department ("ACPD"); three unknown police officers; and Albemarle County ("the County"). The action arises from Holmes' efforts to search the plaintiffs' residence following a traffic stop. The plaintiffs claim that Holmes engaged in racial profiling in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and that the County is subject to municipal liability for the alleged violation. Holmes and the County have moved for summary judgment. For the following reasons, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.


         The following facts are either undisputed or presented in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc.. 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Libertarian Party of Va. v. Judd. 718 F.3d 308. 313 (4th Cir. 2013).

         I. The Traffic Stop and Subsequent Search of the Plaintiffs' Residence

         On the afternoon of April 26, 2014, Holmes, who is Caucasian, was on duty as a patrol officer for the ACPD. His "main goal" that day was to use "traffic enforcement... as a tool to do criminal interdiction." Holmes Dep. 227, Docket No. 49-1; see also Id. (explaining that "you utilize traffic laws, different infractions of the traffic laws to initiate stops on people and do criminal interdiction" for "the gamut of criminal elements, " including "narcotics"). According to Holmes, such work is necessary because "[n]o one drives around with signs on the side of their car that say 'I'm carrying drugs.'" Id.

         Holmes parked his patrol vehicle in the parking lot of a Super 8 motel on Greenbrier Drive in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the ACPD "tend[ed] to have incidents" involving "narcotics activities." Id. at 13. The motel is located across the street from a 7-Eleven convenience store. As part of his criminal interdiction efforts, Holmes ran the license plates (or "tags") of vehicles in the parking lots of both businesses through the Virginia Criminal Information Network ("VCIN") system.

         At approximately 5:43 p.m., after running the tags on several other vehicles, Holmes ran the tag on a BMW 7-series sedan with the license plate number WZA5310. Holmes learned that the vehicle was registered to Bianca Johnson. Holmes remembered hearing about a previous call for service involving Johnson and her husband or boyfriend. At that time, Holmes searched -another police database to check for individuals linked with Johnson. Holmes discovered that Delmar Canada was listed as an "associate" of Johnson. Holmes Decl.¶ 6, Docket No. 46-2. Holmes remembered hearing Canada's name in relation to the previous call for service. He also recalled hearing that Canada's license was suspended. Holmes clicked on a hyperlink associated with Canada's name and was able to see a photograph of Canada. He learned that Canada's driver's license had been suspended for failing to pay child support.

         At some point during that process, an African-American man exited the 7-Eleven and got in the driver's seat of the BMW sedan. Holmes matched the photograph from the police database to the man who entered the vehicle and determined that Canada was the driver. Consequently, after Canada exited the 7-Eleven parking lot and turned on to Greenbrier Drive, Holmes initiated a traffic stop of the vehicle. Canada immediately pulled into the parking lot of a nearby business, where the stop was conducted.

         The recording equipment in Holmes' patrol car captured the traffic stop on video.[*] After approaching the vehicle, Holmes asked Canada why he was out driving and informed him that his license was suspended. In response, Canada indicated that he was not aware that his license was suspended and that he had not received any paperwork advising him of the suspension. Canada advised Holmes that he had previously paid $1, 500.00 to get his license back after failing to make child support payments. Holmes subsequently inquired as to whether Canada had the vehicle registration. He then commented on the large size of Canada's cell phone and peered into the window of the vehicle. Shortly thereafter, a dispatcher radioed Holmes and advised him that records indicated that Canada's license had been suspended on March 28, 2013, and that notice had been delivered via first class mail. In the meantime, Canada contacted Johnson and arranged for her to bring the vehicle registration to the scene of the traffic stop. While waiting for Johnson, Holmes returned to his patrol vehicle.

         Several minutes later, just before Johnson arrived, Holmes returned to Canada's vehicle and inquired as to how much he still owed for child support. Holmes explained that Canada's license was still suspended due to failing to make child support payments. At that point, Johnson arrived at the scene of the traffic stop with the vehicle registration. Johnson, who is also African-American, was driving a BMW sport utility vehicle. Holmes advised them that Canada would not be allowed to drive the BMW sedan from the scene.

         While Holmes was talking to Canada and Johnson, a female officer approached Johnson's vehicle. After Holmes answered questions from Johnson regarding the basis for the stop and the manner in which Holmes had determined that Canada's license was suspended, Holmes and the female officer returned to the patrol vehicle. While there, the female officer observed that Canada was driving a "nice car." See Video of Traffic Stop 13:16. In response, Holmes noted that it was an "expensive car." Id. at 13:20.

         Johnson subsequently approached Holmes' patrol vehicle and requested Holmes' badge number and a business card, which he gave her. After she walked away from the vehicle, Holmes commented to the female officer that Johnson was probably upset because he had run the tags on the vehicle Canada was driving. Holmes noted that he did not care if Johnson was upset.

         At the conclusion of the traffic stop, Holmes issued Canada a summons for driving on a suspended license. After going over the summons with him, Holmes explained that if Canada took care of the child support payments and got his license back from the Department of Motor Vehicles ("DMV"), the state court might reduce the charge to driving without a license. Following the traffic stop, Holmes ran additional license plates through the VCIN system.

         At some point thereafter, Holmes contacted a supervisor with the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement ("JADE") task force and inquired as to whether there were any active drug investigations involving Canada. The supervisor advised Holmes that Canada's name was familiar but that he was not involved in any open investigations by the task force.

         On April 27, 2014, Holmes applied for a warrant to search the plaintiffs' residence for the suspension notification paperwork that purportedly had been mailed to Canada. In the affidavit submitted in support of the search warrant, Holmes stated that the search was requested in relation to the offense of "[operating a motor vehicle on the public roadways of the Commonwealth while license or privilege to drive has been suspended in violation of Virginia [C]ode 46.2-301." Aff. for Search Warrant, Docket No. 46-5. The search warrant was issued by a magistrate that same day. The Warrant directed officers to "forthwith search" the plaintiffs' residence, "either in day or night, " for the "Department of Motor Vehicles suspension notification form for Delmar Gene Canada." Search Warrant, Docket No. 46-5.

         Although Holmes had previously issued citations to over 50 people for driving on a suspended license, he had never applied for, or executed, a warrant to search for a suspension notice from the DMV. Likewise, there is no evidence that anyone else in the ACPD had taken such action. See Rule 30(b)(6) Dep. of Lieutenant Darrell Byers 78, Docket No. 49-7 (acknowledging that the deponent had never obtained a warrant to search for a DMV notification form in his 18 years as a police officer, and that he did not know of any other officer who had done so). Holmes claims that he had learned from another officer who had attended "some sort of gang training" that "obtaining] search warrants [in] reference to driving suspended notifications" could be used "as part of an investigative tool." Holmes Dep. 51. In this particular case, Holmes believed "that there was a possibility that [he] would find some narcotics inside [the plaintiffs'] residence." Holmes Dep. 67; see also id. at 68 ("The warrant was obtained as part of an investigation in reference to the driving suspended notification. Was there a possibility that I was going to find narcotics inside that residence? Yes, sir.").

         Holmes and two other officers executed the search warrant five days later, after 11:00 p.m. on a Friday night. During the search, Holmes made comments about the money that he located in the residence. Ultimately, he and the other officers did not find the DMV notice or any narcotics. Prior to leaving the plaintiffs' residence, Holmes returned Canada's driver's license to him.

         II. Statis ...

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