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Bonnell v. Beach

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

August 6, 2019

BENJAMIN B. BONNELL, Plaintiff,
v.
COL. ROBERT R. BEACH, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ROBERT E. PAYNE SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on DEFENDANT WHITEHEAD'S MOTION TO DISMISS (ECF No. 5) (the "Motion"). For the reasons set forth below, the Motion will be denied.

         BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of an altercation in a dormitory at Longwood University ("Longwood") between Benjamin Bonnell ("Bonnell") and Ieuan Phillips ("Phillips"). Following this altercation and subsequent investigation by Officer Rachel Whitehead ("Whitehead") of the Longwood Police Department, Bonnell was charged with felony malicious wounding pursuant to Va. Code § 18.2-51 (the "state charge"). The state charge was ultimately terminated favorably for Bonnell by nolle prosequi. Subsequently, Bonnell filed this action, alleging, inter alia, malicious prosecution (by way of 42 U.S.C. § 1983) by Whitehead.[1] A "malicious prosecution" claim brought pursuant to Section 1983 "is properly 'founded on a Fourth Amendment seizure that incorporates elements of the analogous common law tort of malicious prosecution.'" Massey v. Ojaniit, 759 F.3d 343, 356 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting Lambert v. Williams, 223 F.3d 257, 262 (4th Cir. 2000)); Hupp v. Cook, __ F.3d __, 2019 WL 3330443, *9-10 (4th Cir. July 25, 2019); Smith v. Munday, 848 F.3d 248, 252-53 (4th Cir. 2017) (same); see also Manuel v. City of Joliet, Ill., 137 S.Ct. 911, 918-20 (2017).

         The background relevant to the Motion will be set out in more detail below. The Motion is brought under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b) (6) . Hence, the Court is obligated to treat the well-pleaded facts as true and accord Bonnell, the non-moving party, the benefit of all reasonable inferences. See, e.g., Rockville Cars, LLC v. City of Rockville, 891 F.3d 141, 145 (4th Cir. 2018).

         A. The Altercation

         As alleged in the Complaint (ECF No. 1), Bonnell, while a student at Longwood, was a suitemate with Phillips, another Longwood student. Compl. ¶¶ 11-12. Throughout the day on February 2, 2018 (hereinafter, "February 2"), Bonnell and Phillips had feuded with each other, culminating in what the Complaint describes as a "heated argument." Id. ¶ 13-14. Bonnell alleges that he left Phillips' presence to avoid a physical altercation between the two. Id. ¶ 15. Another Longwood student, Carie Sutliff ("Sutliff"), directed Bonnell to go to her suite to "cool off from his verbal altercation with Mr. Phillips." Id. ¶ 16.

         Bonnell then alleges that, as he was walking with Sutliff to her suite, Phillips "pursue[d] [him] and shouted several vulgar statements" at Bonnell. Id. ¶ 17. Sutliff denied Phillips entry to her suite, but the "physically taller and heavier" Phillips "forcibly pushed Ms. Sutliff out of the way, entered her suite without permission, and confronted Mr. Bonnell." Id. ¶¶ 18-19. Phillips then asked Bonnell if he wanted to fight, aggressively approached Bonnell, initiated physical contact with Bonnell by "grabbing him around the neck," shoved him into the closet door, causing a laceration on Bonnell's head. Id. ¶¶ 20-21. Bonnell slumped to the floor and Phillips picked him up and "slammed him onto the ground." Id. ¶ 22.

         Then, the Complaint alleges that, while Bonnell was "on his back on the ground and being attacked by Mr. Phillips," Bonnell "picked up a glass bottle to defend himself against Mr. Phillips." Id. ¶ 23. Bonnell pleads that, in self-defense, he threw the bottle at Phillips, but Phillips ducked, and the bottle struck Sutliff in the side of the head. Id. ¶ 25. The altercation then diffused, and Bonnell checked on Sutliff several times, while Philips "showed no overall concern" for Sutliff. Id. ¶ 26-28. As a result of the altercation, Bonnell had lacerations on his head and a minor concussion. Id. ¶ 30. Sutliff did not seek medical treatment because her mother, who works in the medical field, advisd her that she did not need treatment. Id. ¶ 32.

         B. The Investigation[2]

         On the day after the altercation, February 3, 2018, Bonnell sought out RA Carpenter to discuss what had happened. Id. ¶ 33. Carpenter and Bonnell met on February 5, 2018 and discussed the altercation with Phillips. Id. ¶ 34. Carpenter then spoke with Phillips, Sutliff, and another witness, Madison Lantz ("Lantz"), about the events of February 2. Thereafter, and in reliance on those interviews, Carpenter prepared a written incident report. Id. ¶¶ 35-36.

         Whitehead performed her own investigation of the February 2 altercation, including receiving written witness statements and Carpenter's written report.[3] Id. ¶¶ 37-42. Whitehead also wrote an incident report, which Bonnell alleges contained "numerous 'false facts.'" Id. ¶ 42. The pertinent details of these reports and witness statements are set out below.

         (1) Carpenter's Report

         In his report (dated February 5, 2018), Carpenter documented that Bonnell had told Carpenter: that Bonnell and Phillips "had gotten into a heated discussion"; that Bonnell had made a comment under his breath to Sutliff that prompted Phillips to ask "in a heated manner 'what did you say'"; that Phillips had "picked up [Bonnell] and slammed [his] head on the door"; that Phillips "slammed [Bonnell] on the ground"; and that "Bonnell then attempted to use a glass bottle to defend against [Phillips]," but that the bottle slipped from Bonnell's hands and hit Sutliff. ECF No. 35-1 at 2.

         Then, Carpenter documented his conversation with Phillips, who recounted: that Bonnell had said something to Phillips in the hallway; that Phillips followed Bonnell into a suite; that Bonnell then "challenged" Phillips by asking "do you want to start this?"; that Bonnell "squared up to" Phillips; that Phillips "put [his] hands on the neck of [Bonnell] "; that Bonnell also put his hands on Phillip's neck; that Phillips "then picked up [Bonnell] and 'threw him on the ground'"; and that "[Bonnell] then grabbed a bottle and attempted to throw it at [Phillips] but [Phillips] ducked and [Sutliff] was hit." ECF No. 35-1 at 2.

         Finally, Carpenter recounted his conversation with Sutliff and Lantz, who witnessed the altercation. According to Carpenter's report, Sutliff and Lantz recounted: that there had been an "exchange of words" between Phillips and Bonnell; that Sutliff told Bonnell to "cool down" in her room; that, while walking to Sutliffs room, Bonnell muttered "I wish I could throw this bottle at you"; that Phillips reacted to this statement and followed Bonnell to Sutliffs suite; that Phillips forced his way into Sutliffs suite; that Phillips approached Bonnell in the suite, asked him what he had said, and "picked up [Bonnell] and slammed [Bonnell] against the door"; that Phillips then "slammed [Bonnell's] body and head on the floor"; that, while Bonnell was "laying on the floor motionless," Phillips picked him up again and "tried to grab for his neck"; and that "Bonnell then picked up a glass bottle to try to hit [Phillips] with to escape," but that the bottle "slipped" and "hit [Sutliff] instead." ECF No. 35-1 at 3.

         Carpenter's report was available to Whitehead when she made her incident report. And, so too were the witness statements made by Bonnell, Phillips, and Sutliff. See supra n.3.

         (2) Bonnell's Written Statement

         During her investigation of the February 2 altercation, Whitehead received a written statement from Bonnell, dated February 6. See ECF No. 35-2. Bonnell wrote that he and Phillips had started arguing on that day; that Bonnell left their room and Phillips began yelling after him; that Phillips came to the suite where Bonnell was; that Phillips "began pushing himself into me and [he] picked me up by the neck, slammed me into the closet and my head hit the metal clothing bar"; that Phillips "picked me up again by the legs and slammed me into the ground"; and that "while 1 was trying to get up I picked up a glass bottle to defend myself," but the bottle slipped out of his hand and hit Sutliff. Id.

         (3) Phillips' Written Statement

         Phillips also provided a written statement, dated February 6, 2018, to Whitehead as part of her investigation into the February 2 altercation. See ECF No. 35-4. Phillips wrote that Bonnell said something in the hallway; that Phillips followed Bonnell to Sutliff s suite to determine what had been said; that, upon entering Sutliff's suite, Phillips repeatedly asked Bonnell what he had said; that Bonnell "came at me and squared up and repeatedly asked me if I wanted to fight and if I wanted to fight right now"; that, after Bonnell repeated his comments again, Phillips pushed Bonnell "into the locker around the neck still holding him there"; that Bonnell then put his hands around Phillips' neck; that Phillips then "threw [Bonnell] to the ground; and that "when he was on the ground [Bonnell] picked up the bottle next to him and attempted to throw it at [Phillips]," but he ducked and the bottle hit Sutliff in the head. Id. Phillips added that he later found out that Bonnell "told the people in the suit [sic] that if he was to find an empty bottle he would smash it against my head." Id. It is not clear from Phillips' statement when Bonnell supposedly said this.

         (4) Sutliff's Written Statement

         Sutliff gave a written statement, dated February 6, 2018, to Whitehead during Whitehead's investigation. See ECF No. 35-3. In her statement, Sutliff wrote that Phillips and Bonnell had been "bickering to each other"; that Bonnell told her (as they were walking to Sutliff's room) "sometimes I wish I could throw a bottle at [Phillips'] head"; that Sutliff told Bonnell to go to her suite to cool off; that Phillips stormed down the hallway looking for Bonnell; that Sutliff tried to stop Phillips from entering her room, but Phillips "pushed me out of the way to get to [Bonnell]"; that a fight broke out between Phillips and Bonnell; that Phillips "slammed [Bonnell] and as he was getting up, in the fight, [Bonnell] took the bottle. . .and threw the bottle to hit [Phillips] but it came across the room to hit me instead when [Phillips] ducked to miss it"; and that Sutliff started bleeding from a split in her head. Id.

         (5) Whitehead's Report

         With all this evidence in hand, Whitehead prepared an incident report, dated February 6, 2018. ECF No. 35-5. The incident report first recounts Whitehead's conversation with Sutliff, who, according to Whitehead, stated: that Phillips and Bonnell had been having "personal issues since school started"; that Phillips entered Sutliff's suite to speak with Bonnell; that, after arguing, Bonnell and Phillips had a physical altercation; that Phillips "shoved Bonnell off of him and Bonnell continued to get in Phillips face"; that Phillips "slammed Bonnell down on the floor cutting his head open"; that, as Phillips "tried to leave the room, Bonnell picked up an alcohol bottle and threw it missing Phillips, and striking [Sutliff] in the back of the head"; and that Sutliff "had a pretty large gash in her head." Id. at 3. The Complaint alleges that this account does not accurately reflect what Sutliff had said. And, a comparison of the incident report and Sutliff's statement supports that allegation.

         Whitehead also spoke with Phillips, who, according to Whitehead's report, told her that he and Bonnell had not been getting along. Id. On February 2, Phillips recounted: that he "heard Bonnell talking about him in the hallway and went out to see what he said"; that he followed Bonnell to Sutliffs suite "to confront him"; that, immediately upon entering the room, Bonnell "jumped in his face hitting him with his chest saying he would fight him"; that Bonnell took a swing at Phillips so Phillips "picked him up and basically slammed him down on the floor causing him to hit his head"; that Phillips tried to leave the suite "when Bonnell threw the bottle hitting [Sutliff] in the head"; and that he was later told that Bonnell had stated that he "want[ed] to bash a glass bottle over his head." Id.

         The Complaint alleges that the incident report does not accurately reflect what Phillips had said. And, a comparison of the incident report and Phillips' statement supports that allegation.

         Finally, according to the incident report, Bonne11 recounted the events of February 2 to Whitehead as follows: that Bonnell was in Sutliffs room when Phillips "came in unprovoked and jumped in his face"; that Bonnell "tried to back up and Phillips body slammed him twice hitting his head on the closet"; and that Bonnell "got up, grabbed the bottle and attempted to throw it at Phillips but hit [Sutliff] instead." Id. The Complaint alleges the same. Bonnell also stated that he did not recall making any statements about hitting Phillips in the head with a bottle.[4] Id.

         C. The State Charge

         Following Whitehead's investigation into the February 2 altercation, the Complaint alleges that Whitehead took "false facts" to Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Wendy Hannah "to obtain approval to swear out a criminal felony malicious wounding complaint against Mr. Bonnell."[5] Id. ¶¶ 42, 44. The Complaint also alleges that Whitehead's incident report contained key discrepancies from the written statements given by witnesses. Id; ¶ 42. These discrepancies include that Whitehead wrote that Sutliff said Phillips was trying to leave the room when the bottle was thrown, when Sutliffs own written statement does not include this detail. Id.

         The Complaint further alleges that Whitehead presented "false facts" to Magistrate John Ellis, and that, on the basis thereof, an arrest warrant was issued for Bonnell for the felony malicious wounding of Sutliff. Id. ¶¶ 49-52. The "false facts" alleged to have been presented to Magistrate Ellis come from both Whitehead's incident report, id. ΒΆ 42, and from the Criminal Complaint that ...


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