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King v. Darden

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

August 1, 2018

STEPHEN KING, Plaintiff,
KIMBERLY DARDEN et al. Defendants.


          John A. Gibney, Jr. United States District Judge

         This case arises from a charge of trespassing at a dump in North Carolina. In 2014, the owner of the dump charged plaintiff Stephen King with trespassing at the dump, which apparently specialized in disposal of stumps. King wanted some deputy sheriffs from Greensville County, Virginia, to testify in his behalf, but Greensville Commonwealth's Attorney Patricia Watson allegedly told King the deputies could not attend his North Carolina trial because they were tied up in court. King later found out the witnesses were actually available. He then filed a bar complaint against Watson for lying to him. Even without the witnesses, he won the trespass case.

         In 2015, with his stump dump charge behind him, King set off on a political career. Given his success in the trespass case, he decided to run for sheriff of Greensville County. Commonwealth's Attorney Watson's cousin, Steve Allen, complained to Watson that King had committed election fraud by lying about having lived in Virginia for one year. Watson passed the complaint along to the Virginia State Police. Special Agent Kimberly Darden conducted an investigation and found little evidence of wrongdoing, but obtained a warrant anyway. King lost the election, but stood trial before a jury which acquitted him of election fraud.

         The now twice-acquitted King then filed this suit against Allen, Watson, and Darden because of their dastardly conspiracy against him. In his complaint, he asserts four counts: (I) claims under § 1983 for malicious prosecution and false arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment; (II) a state law false imprisonment claim; (III) a state law malicious prosecution claim; and (IV) a state law business conspiracy claim. The defendants have moved to dismiss all counts.

         As to the § 1983 claims in Count I, the Court grants Allen's motion to dismiss because he did not act under color of law. The Court denies Watson and Darden's motions as to the Count I § 1983 malicious prosecution claim; King alleges that Watson and Darden teamed up to prosecute King on the election charge knowing that they had no evidence to support the charge. The Court grants their motions to dismiss the § 1983 false arrest claim because King fails to allege that the police did not arrest him pursuant to a facially valid warrant. The Court will grant King leave to amend if he can somehow come up with facts showing the facial invalidity of the arrest warrant.

         The Court grants the defendants' motions to dismiss the state law false imprisonment claim in Count II, again because King fails to allege that officers did not arrest him pursuant to a valid warrant, but grants King leave to amend as to his claim against Watson and Darden.

         The Court denies Watson and Darden's motions to dismiss Count Ill's state law malicious prosecution claim, because, again, King seems to have alleged that they teamed up to charge him wrongfully. Count III does not, however, state a claim against Allen.

         Finally, the Court grants the motions to dismiss the state law business conspiracy claim in Count IV because he fails to allege that the defendants hurt him in any business capacity.


         As discussed above, in late 2014, King filed a bar complaint against Commonwealth's Attorney Watson after the two clashed over witness availability issues. In 2015, King filed to run for Greensville County Sheriff. Watson's cousin Allen told Watson orally that King had not lived in Greensville for the full year prior to the scheduled election, as required by Virginia law, and therefore must have committed election fraud on his election filing form. Watson then sent a letter to the Virginia State Police ("VSP") requesting that they investigate the complaint.

         After receiving the letter, the VSP assigned Special Agent Kimberly Darden to the investigation. Darden then contacted King, who insisted that he had resided with his father in Greensville County since October 2014. Darden also spoke with King's father, but the complaint does not provide the details of that conversation. Darden spoke to Allen, the original complainant, who said he had no information other than that he was unsure whether King lived in North Carolina or Virginia. Darden also spoke with Greensville County Registrar Dorothy Kea, who merely confirmed to Darden that to be eligible to run, King must have resided in Greensville for one year prior to Election Day. According to the complaint, this was the full extent of Darden's investigation. On these scant facts, Darden swore out a warrant for King's arrest, and officers arrested King shortly thereafter.

         Commonwealth's Attorney Watson had little to do with the case after asking the State Police to investigate the possible election fraud. She only requested the Virginia Circuit Court appoint a special prosecutor from a different jurisdiction to handle King's case.

         With the election fraud charge hanging over his head, King lost the election. Three days later, however, a jury found King not guilty of election fraud.


         The defendants have moved the Court to dismiss the case on various grounds, which the Court discusses below.[1]

         A. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Claims: Under Color of State Law

         In Count I, King sues all three defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating his "Fourth Amendment right to be free from illegal seizure of his person." (Complaint, Dk. No. 1. ¶ 52.) To state a claim under § 1983, King must establish that the defendants acted under the color of state law. Dowe v. Total Action Against Poverty in Roanoke Valley, 145 F.3d 653, 658 (4th Cir. 1998).

         As a Commonwealth's Attorney and a state police officer investigating a potential crime, Watson and Darden both acted under color of law. Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4th Cir. 2003) ("Section 1983 therefore includes within its scope apparently private actions which have a 'sufficiently close nexus' with the State to be 'fairly treated as that of the State itself.'") (citation omitted).

         In contrast, Allen does not work for state or local government. A private person can, however, act under color of law in a few circumstances; as relevant here, a private person can fall under § 1983 by conspiring with government officials. Adickes v. S. H Kress & Company, 398 U.S. 144, 152 (1970). To allege such a conspiracy, a plaintiff "must present evidence that the defendants acted jointly in concert and that some overt act was done in furtherance of the conspiracy which resulted in plaintiffs deprivation of a constitutional right." Cooper v. Lippa, 3:11-cv-712 (JRS) WL 1410077 at *6 (E.D. Va. Apr. 23, 2012) (citing Hinkle v. City of Clarksburg, W.Va.,81 F.3d 416, 421 (4th Cir. 1996)). The plaintiff must plead facts that would "reasonably lead to the inference that [defendants] positively or tacitly came to a mutual understanding to try to accomplish a common and unlawful plan." Hinkle, 81 F.3d at 421. If a plaintiff alleges the existence of a conspiracy only through speculation and inference, the claim should be dismissed. Id. at 423. The complaint alleges only that Allen called his cousin Watson with suspicions about King's residence; when quizzed by ...

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