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Johnson v. Caldwell

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

July 12, 2019

DONALD CALDWELL, et al., Defendants.


          Hon. Glen E. Conrad Senior United States District Judge

         Walter L. Johnson, proceeding pro se, commenced this action by filing a form complaint against Donald Caldwell, the Commonwealth's Attorney for the City of Roanoke, and Douglas Hubert, a Virginia State Police Special Agent. The plaintiff has not paid the filing fee but will be granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis for purposes of initial review of his complaint. For the following reasons, the court concludes that the case must be dismissed for failure to state a claim, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii).


          The following facts are taken from the complaint and the attached exhibits. See Goines v. Valley Cmtv. Servs. Bd.. 822 F.3d 159, 166 (4th Cir. 2016) (noting that the court may consider exhibits to a complaint in assessing its sufficiency).

         In September of 2013, law enforcement officers executed a search warrant at the plaintiffs residence as part of an investigation by the Virginia State Police. During the search, computers, hard drives, photographs, and other items of personal property were seized by law enforcement officers. Ultimately, no charges were brought as a result of the search.

         On July 14, 2017, Caldwell, on behalf of the Commonwealth, moved the Circuit Court for the City of Roanoke to order the destruction of 24 items seized during the investigation. "The Commonwealth represent[ed] to the Court that the listed items [had] been 'contaminated' with child pornography and [could not] be sanitized or cleaned for any future commercial use." July 14, 2017 Order, Dkt. No. 2-1. The Circuit Court granted the motion and "ordered that agents of the Virginia State Police destroy said such items listed on the attached document at a time and in a manner that is most practicable." Ia\ (capitalization omitted). The Court also required the filing of a certificate upon completion of the destruction.

         The Commonwealth filed the requested certificate of destruction on September 26, 2017. The certificate indicates that the specified items of personal property were destroyed by Hubert on September 25, 2017, pursuant to the Circuit Court's order. See Certificate of Destruction, Dkt. No. 2-1 ("Pursuant to a written order of the Roanoke City Circuit Court dated July 14, 2017, the following items were destroyed at 1:30 p.m. on the 25th day of September, 2017 ... by Virginia State Police Special Agent Douglas R. Hubert.").

         At some point thereafter, the plaintiff contacted the Virginia State Police regarding the items seized from his residence. On June 11, 2019, a representative of the Virginia State Police emailed the plaintiff and advised him that the property had been destroyed pursuant to a court order issued on July 14, 2017. The plaintiff subsequently received a copy of the order and the certificate of destruction.

         On June 24, 2019, the plaintiff filed a form complaint against Caldwell and Hubert. The plaintiff alleges that he "was never advised that proceedings had been undertaken to deprive [him] of [his] property." Compl. 3, Dkt. No. 2. Consequently, the plaintiff claims that the defendants deprived him of his property without due process of law, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. He seeks to recover compensatory and punitive damages, and requests that the defendants be removed from their positions.

         Standard of Review

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e), which governs in forma pauperis proceedings, the court has a mandatory duty to screen initial filings. Eriline Co. S.A. v. Johnson, 440 F.3d 648, 656-57 (4th Cir. 2006). The court must dismiss a case "at any time" if the court determines that the complaint "fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii).

         The standards for reviewing a complaint for dismissal under § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) are the same as those which apply when a defendant moves for dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). De'Lonta v. Angelone. 330 F.3d 630, 633 (4th Cir. 2003). Thus, in reviewing a complaint under this statute, the court must accept all well-pleaded factual allegations as true and view the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Philips v. Pitt Cty. Mem. Hosp., 572 F.3d 176, 180 (4th Cir. 2009). To survive dismissal for failure to state a claim, a complaint must contain sufficient factual allegations "to raise a right to relief above the speculative level" and "to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 570 (2007).


         Because the plaintiff characterizes this action as one for violation of his right to due process, the court construes the complaint as being brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 provides a cause of action against any person who, under color of state law, causes the deprivation of another person's rights under the Constitution or laws of the United States. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. For the following reasons, the court ...

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