United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division
Mark L. Weiner, Plaintiff,
Albemarle County, Virginia, ET AL., Defendants.
K. MOON, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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).
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.
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).
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).
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
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).
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).
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
The Constitution Grants Defendant Tracci Sovereign
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
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?
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 ...