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Weiner v. Albemarle County

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

January 24, 2018

Mark L. Weiner, Plaintiff,
Albemarle County, Virginia, ET AL., Defendants.



          Plaintiff Mark L. Weiner alleges that he was imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit. After giving Chelsea Steiniger a ride home, Steiniger fabricated a tale in which Weiner abducted her. The local prosecutor-Denise Lunsford-charged Weiner and obtained a conviction, despite holes in Steiniger's story and exculpatory evidence uncovered during an investigation. After Weiner served over two years in prison, Lunsford eventually agreed that the conviction should be vacated, and Weiner regained his freedom.

         Weiner sued Lunsford for violating his constitutional rights, but later dropped her from the case. The remaining defendants are Albemarle County and the current Commonwealth's Attorney for the County, Robert Tracci, in his official capacity. They have moved to dismiss.

         What happened to Weiner-if it happened as he alleges it-was a grave injustice. But the law does not entitle him to relief against the defendants in this case. Defendant Tracci, as commonwealth's attorney and thus an arm of the state government, is entitled to sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. Relatedly, because a commonwealth's attorney does not create policy for the county government, federal law does not make Albemarle County liable for the constitutional violations alleged here. Defendants' motions will therefore be granted and the case dismissed.


         To determine whether a complaint states a legal claim, the Court must accept as true all well-plead allegations, draw reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff, disregard the Complaint's legal conclusions and arguments, and ensure the plaintiff offers more than a formulaic recitation of the elements. See generally Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007); Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).


         Late on December 12, 2012 into early the next day, Chelsea Steiniger walked home from her boyfriend's apartment. (Amended Complaint ¶ 10 (hereafter “Complaint”)). At some point, Plaintiff Mark L. Weiner (“Plaintiff”) gave her a ride to her mother's apartment. (Id. ¶ 10). Upon arrival, Steiniger “began texting a made-up story to her boyfriend.” (Id. ¶ 11). She refused to answer her boyfriend's calls, impersonating an imaginary abductor (supposedly Plaintiff) through text messages. (Id.). The boyfriend responded that he was calling the police, prompting Steiniger to partially drop her ruse, call him, and claim she had escaped her abductor. She rebuffed her boyfriend's suggestion to call the police. (Id.).

         Eventually, the boyfriend called the police himself, but Steiniger would not answer the 911 dispatcher's subsequent calls. (Complaint ¶ 12). She also deleted a voicemail from the dispatcher and turned off her phone to obscure her true location. (Id.). Nonetheless, police located her, and she persisted with her abduction story. On December 14, Plaintiff was arrested and later charged with abduction with intent to defile. (Id. ¶ 8).

         At trial, Steiniger stated that Plaintiff incapacitated her with an inhalant and then sent texts on her phone for a 15-minute period. (Complaint ¶ 14). She then maintained she awoke moments later in an abandoned building, recovered her phone, jumped off a balcony, hid in the woods, and text-messaged her boyfriend. (Id.). She further claimed her phone thereafter died, and that she did not check her voicemail or see any calls until she walked out of the woods and charged her phone at home, allegedly at 2:00 a.m.

         This testimony was false, and then-commonwealth's attorney Denise Lunsford allegedly knew it to be false. (Complaint ¶ 16). Specifically, pretrial investigation and interviews by an Albemarle County detective with AT&T revealed that Steiniger's phone had not died. In fact, she had used it to exchange several calls with her boyfriend and receive a voicemail from 911, all during the period her phone was supposedly dead. (Id. ¶ 16). AT&T's records also revealed that, during the relevant time, Steiniger's phone connected to cell towers near her mother's house but not towers closest to the abandoned building. (Id. ¶ 17). Lunsford allegedly instructed two detectives to further investigate the cell tower issue, and both concluded that Steiniger's calls came from near her mother's house, not the abandoned building. (Id. ¶ 18).

         Purportedly, Lunsford knew these facts yet nonetheless did not try to correct or prevent Steiniger's false or misleading testimony, instead successfully opposing the admission of AT&T's records at trial. (Complaint ¶ 20). She also supposedly withheld from Weiner's trial counsel the two detectives' exculpatory conclusions about cell phone tower locations. (Id. ¶ 21).

         Further inconsistencies beset Steiniger's tale. The Commonwealth's forensic investigator indicated that GPS evidence showed Weiner was approximately 17 miles from the abandoned building at the time in question. (Complaint ¶¶ 22-23). Lunsford knew this but did not try to correct the record or prevent Steiniger's false testimony.

         Moreover, because of the timing of text messages Steiniger admittedly sent herself, she had to claim at trial that she was incapacity quickly by Plaintiff (who then took control of her phone and began sending messages from it) yet was able to rouse herself, somehow retrieve her phone, and escape, all within a short timeframe. Steiniger claimed Weiner incapacitated her by covering her face with a chemical-doused rag, rendering her unconscious almost instantly. (Id. ¶ 25). But no known, available chemical would produce this effect and still have left Steiniger in a state capable of escaping in the manner she described. (Id. ¶ 26). Indeed, Lunsford admitted to a newspaper on July 22, 2015 that she was “not sure how it works. I haven't talked to an expert. We were never able to determine what the substance was.” (Id. ¶ 27). Lunsford also elicited misleading testimony from a nurse that Steiniger had sustained a right knee bruise when jumping off a balcony to escape the abandoned building. Lunsford possessed a recorded interview in which Steiniger asserted an injury to her left leg. (See Id. ¶¶ 29-30).

         Ultimately, Plaintiff was convicted by a jury in May 2013 and sentenced in June 2015 to 20 years imprisonment, with 12 years suspended. (Complaint ¶¶ 31, 33). In July 2015, Lunsford joined Plaintiff's motion to vacate his conviction, which the Albemarle County Circuit Court granted; Weiner's charge was dismissed and he was released from jail. (Id. ¶ 34).

         The Complaint contains two claim for “violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983” that mention Plaintiff's due process right to a fair trial. (Complaint ¶¶ 35-49). Plaintiff's opposition brief indicates he means these claims to be based on Brady and Giglio violations. (Dkt. 28 at 8). He also includes a state law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.


         I. The Constitution Grants Defendant Tracci Sovereign Immunity

         Defendant Tracci, as mentioned above, was not involved in Plaintiff's prosecution. Instead, he is sued in his current, official capacity because he subsequently became the Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney after the events giving rise to this lawsuit. This factors prominently into his arguments for dismissal, especially since Plaintiff seeks damages and not injunctive or declaratory relief. Complaint, Prayer for Relief ¶¶ A-C; see Tankersley v. Almand, 837 F.3d 390, 406 n.6 (4th Cir. 2016) (“official-capacity actions for prospective relief, ” unlike those for damages, “are not treated as actions against the state” to which sovereign immunity would apply).

         Defendant Tracci argues that he is entitled to sovereign immunity because, by virtue of being sued in his official capacity as Commonwealth's Attorney, he is an arm of the Commonwealth of Virginia against whom damages cannot be recovered. (Dkt. 23 at 3-5). Indeed, the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits monetary damages against a state officer sued in his official capacity. See Nivens v. Gilchrist, 444 F.3d 237, 249 (4th Cir. 2006) (applying Eleventh Amendment immunity to North Carolina district attorney sued in official capacity). The only question is: In Virginia, is a commonwealth's attorney an officer or arm of the state for Eleventh Amendment purposes?

         The Fourth Circuit's cases imply an affirmative answer, although it has never spoken to that precise question in a published opinion. See Bland v. Roberts, 730 F.3d 368, 390-91 (4th Cir. 2013) (affirming sovereign immunity against official capacity claims to Virginia sheriff, who-like a commonwealth's attorney-is a state constitutional officer); Smith v. McCarthy, 349 F. App'x 851, 855-56, 858 n.11 (4th Cir. 2009) (affirming sovereign immunity for official capacity damages claim against, inter alia, Nelson County Commonwealth's Attorney); Trantham v. Henry Cty. Sheriff's Office, 435 F. App'x 230 (4th Cir. 2011) (summarily affirming district court's application of sovereign immunity to commonwealth's attorney). And ...

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