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Rodriguez v. Gerardot

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

May 5, 2014

JEFFREY L. RODRIGUEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
FORT WAYNE POLICE OFFICER MARK GERARDOT #1629F, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

PHILIP P. SIMON, Chief District Judge.

Jeffrey Rodriguez loves his car - a 1986 Buick Regal. It's old and not exactly a classic, but Rodriguez has put a lot of effort into restoring it. He worked with his father to rebuild the engine, got the car primed and painted until it was looking good as new, and added fancy rims to the tires and big speakers for the sound system. It was the speakers that got him into trouble. Rodriguez was cruising around Fort Wayne listening to music so loudly that Officer Mark Gerardot of the Fort Wayne Police could hear the bass from thirty feet away. Gerardot pulled Rodriguez over for violating the city's noise ordinance, and, when Rodriguez didn't have proof of insurance, had Rodriguez's car towed away. Gerardot suspected that Rodriguez might have hidden illegal drugs in the car so, after a police dog conducted a sniff test, Gerardot got a warrant to search the car. Gerardot did not find any drugs, but according to Rodriguez, he did do a number on the Buick. Rodriguez claims Gerardot trashed the car, breaking components, cracking the dashboard, denting the chrome, and much more. Rodriguez has brought this suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claiming Officer Gerardot violated his Fourth Amendment rights by conducting an unnecessarily destructive search.

Gerardot has moved for summary judgment (DE 39) arguing Rodriguez has failed to come forward with enough evidence to create a genuine dispute over whether Gerardot damaged his car. As I will explain, I find that Rodriguez has, in fact, presented enough evidence so that a reasonable jury could find in his favor. Accordingly, Gerardot's motion is DENIED.

BACKGROUND

With a few important exceptions, the facts are undisputed. On May 12, 2010, Jeffrey Rodriguez was driving his car on Bluffton Road in Fort Wayne, Indiana, when he was pulled over by Fort Wayne Police Officer Mark Gerardot (DE 39-1 at 1-2). Rodriguez's car was a 1986 Buick Regal that he had bought in 2007 (DE 47-1 at 3). Rodriguez and his father had put a lot of work into the car, including rebuilding the engine, adding a powerful stereo, and installing rims on the tires. Id. Gerardot initiated the traffic stop because Rodriguez had his music turned up loud in violation of Forth Wayne's noise ordinance (DE 39-1 at 2). With Rodriguez's consent, Gerardot and another officer searched the car at the scene of the traffic stop (DE 47-1 at 1). They found nothing illegal. Id. at 2. Gerardot then cited Rodriguez for the noise violation and for not having proof of insurance with him (DE 39-1 at 2; DE 47-1 at 2). Under Indiana law you can't legally drive without insurance, so Gerardot had Rodriguez's car towed away until Rodriguez could come up with his proof of insurance (DE 39-1 at 2).

Gerardot had the car towed to Kelly Wrecker Service so that he could conduct an inventory search. Id. Again, he found neither narcotics nor weapons. Still not satisfied, Gerardot then had Indiana State Trooper Brad Schultz use a police dog to do a "sniff" search around the outside of the car in the hopes of finding some contraband. Id. at 2-3. The dog alerted at the trunk area and at the passenger side door. Id. Officer Schultz repeated the search and the dog alerted again. Id. at 3. Gerardot then had Rodriguez's car towed to the secured vehicle holding area for the City of Fort Wayne Police Department so that he could get a warrant to conduct a full search. Id.

The next day, May 13, 2010, Geradot applied for, and was granted, a warrant to search Rodriguez's car for "controlled substances and derivatives thereof" (DE 39-1 at 6-7). Armed with the warrant, Gerardot searched the car for the third time. This time, he did a thorough job of it, searching the undercarriage, the internal ports of the bumpers, the engine compartment, the front driver's and passenger's compartments, the trunk, and the wooden speaker box that contained Rodriguez's two large speakers. Id. at 4. In searching the speaker box, Gerardot unscrewed the speakers in order to remove them from the box. Id. Again, Gerardot did not find any narcotics. Id. He then had the car towed back to Kelly Wrecker Service, which is where Rodriguez picked it up. Id.

Gerardot claims he did not cause any damage to the car during his search. Rodriguez says otherwise. According to Rodriguez, the car was "torn up." (DE 47-1 at 3). Areas of the interior had oil and water damage; there was dirt throughout the interior; the lock on the trunk was broken, the chrome piece covering the trunk lock had been torn off; one of the doors was damaged; there was a crack in the dashboard; the underbody of the car had been damaged; the back seat had been removed and was not bolted back into place; the lining of the roof and been pulled down; a part of the dashboard housing a speaker had been cracked; a seatbelt was broken; chrome on the doors had been bent; chrome on the front headlight had been chipped; a rubber piece from the gas pedal was missing; the car's overhead light was hanging from the ceiling, and the speaker box was soaked with water. Id. In addition, Rodriguez discovered what he claims is a GPS tracking device underneath the dashboard of the car near the steering wheel. Id. at 4.

Rodriguez initially brought this suit, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985, against Gerardot, Schultz, two other Forth Wayne police officers, the City of Fort Wayne, and Kelly Wrecker Service (DE 1). He alleged that the law enforcement officers had violated his constitutional rights by obtaining a search warrant based on false information, conducting a search that was outside the scope of the warrant, and conducting an unreasonably destructive search (DE 1 ¶¶ 12-13). He alleged Fort Wayne's constitutionally inadequate policies and practices led to these violations (DE 1 ¶ 14). And Kelly Wrecker Service conspired with law enforcement in the violation of his rights (DE 1 ¶ 10).

Since then, Rodriguez has stipulated to the dismissal of all the defendants, save Gerardot (DE 32, 37, 50). He has also informed the court that he is abandoning the claim that Gerardot lied to obtain the warrant (DE 48 at 7). And he has not presented any evidence, nor made any argument that the search exceeded the scope of the warrant. That leaves the claim that Gerardot violated the Fourth Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by conducting an unreasonably destructive search. Gerardot argues he is entitled to summary judgment because Rodriguez has not come forward with sufficient evidence to support the claim, and, even if he had, Geradot is protected by qualified immunity.

DISCUSSION

Summary judgment is proper "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine dispute about a material facts exists only "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In making this determination, I must construe all facts and draw all reasonable inferences from the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. at 255.

42 U.S.C. § 1983 creates a cause of action when constitutional rights are violated by those acting under color of law. Rodriguez claims Geradot violated his Fourth Amendment rights by conducting an unreasonably destructive search of his car. Even though a search may be lawful, "excessive or unreasonable destruction of property in the course of a search may violate the Fourth Amendment." U.S. v. Ramirez, 523 U.S. 65, 71 (1998). A claim for property damage occasioned during the execution of a valid search warrant is evaluated pursuant to the general touchstone of reasonableness which governs Fourth Amendment analysis. Heft v. Moore, 351 F.3d 278, 282 (7th Cir. 2003).

Before identifying the parties' dispute, I am going to start with where they agree. First, there's no dispute that Officer Gerardot conducted the search of Rodriguez's car (DE 39-1 at 4). Second, there is no dispute that the car is damaged. Rodriguez provided an affidavit describing the damage, has provided photographs depicting the trouble spots, and an estimate for the costs of repairs[1] (DE XX-X-XX-X). For his part, Gerardot doesn't claim that the nearly 30-year-old vehicle is in great shape. ...


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