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Aguilar v. Carver

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

September 30, 2016

EDNA AGUILAR, Plaintiff,



         This matter is before the court on a motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 29) filed by defendants Seymour Police Department Officer Mathew Carver and the City of Seymour.

         Undisputed Facts

         Plaintiff Edna Aguilar is a Honduran citizen who has resided in the United States since October 2013 and obtained permanent residency in May 2014. Ms. Aguilar was stopped by Officer Carver on the night of June 12, 2014, for operating a vehicle without its headlights on, a traffic ordinance infraction under Indiana Code section 9-21-7-1. A video camera captured portions of the stop, and the following undisputed facts are established by that recording and other evidence submitted by the parties. Officer Carver gave Ms. Aguilar a verbal warning for the headlight infraction but did not issue a written citation for it. At the time of the stop, Ms. Aguilar was driving her husband's car while in possession of a Honduran driver's license and permanent residency card but no Indiana driver's license. After obtaining those documents from her and performing some check of them, Officer Carver returned to Ms. Aguilar's car and directed her to step out of the car. He then had her put her hands behind her back, handcuffed her, and told her she was going to jail. During the course of this stop, she was placed in two different squad cars. While Ms. Aguilar was handcuffed and in a police car, Officer Carver telephoned a deputy prosecutor regarding the situation. After conferring with the deputy prosecutor, Officer Carver issued Ms. Aguilar a citation to appear in court under Indiana Code section 9-24-18-1 and did not take her to jail. He also made arrangements to impound her vehicle. Before the car was impounded, Officer Carver said, “You don't have anything illegal on you, do you?” Ms. Aguilar responded, “No, you can check.” Officer Carver then proceeded to perform some search of the car.

         Additional facts pertinent to the defendants' motion for summary judgment will be set forth below in the context of the court's analysis of the parties' arguments.


         Ms. Aguilar's amended complaint alleges Fourth Amendment violations against Officer Carver based on the seizure of her person (arising from the stop) and property (arising from the search). (Dkt. 10 ¶¶ 33-34) She also alleges that the City of Seymour is liable to her for false arrest and conversion under Indiana law and that the City has respondeat superior liability under Indiana law for the actions of Officer Carver. (Dkt. 10 ¶¶ 35-37)[1] Interestingly, the parties' summary judgment briefs do not match up directly to these claims. They don't specifically address state law claims at all, and they argue a claim of Monell liability for failure to train that is not even mentioned in the amended complaint. The plaintiff apparently concedes that her state law claims are dependent on her Fourth Amendment claims, because she has not briefed them separately. And the defendants apparently concede that Ms. Aguilar's recitation in the amended complaint that she “reserves the right to proceed with any and all claims which the facts averred in this Complaint support” (Dkt. 10 ¶ 38) encompasses a Monell failure to train claim on which the defendants have moved for summary judgment. So the court will analyze the claims the parties have briefed.

         The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on all of Ms. Aguilar's claims. They argue that the initial, lawful traffic stop did not develop into an unreasonable seizure because “there is no evidence that Officer Carver prolonged the traffic stop more than was necessary to investigate the potential crime of operating without a valid driver's license.” (Dkt. 30 at p. 9). Beyond that, they maintain that, even if the stop is considered an arrest, there was probable cause for it. Second, they contend that even if Ms. Aguilar's detention was not constitutional, Officer Carver is entitled to qualified immunity, primarily because the officer sought legal advice. Next, the defendants assert that the warrantless search of Ms. Aguilar's car did not violate the Fourth Amendment because Ms. Aguilar consented to the search and, moreover, the search was justified by the “impound inventory exception” to the warrant requirement. (Dkt. 30 at p. 13). Finally, the defendants argue that there is no evidence of an official, unconstitutional municipal policy that would support a finding that the City is liable in this matter. The court addresses these arguments in turn below, after first discussing the defendants' threshold challenge to the admissibility of certain matters Ms. Aguilar has asserted in opposition to summary judgment.

         I. The Defendants' Challenge to Ms. Aguilar's Statement of Facts

         At the outset, the court addresses the defendants' request (in their reply to Ms. Aguilar's response) that much of Ms. Aguilar's “Statement of Material Facts and Facts in Dispute” in opposition to summary judgment be rejected because the statement contains “inadmissible hearsay, conclusory assertions, and legal opinions.” (Dkt. 45 at p. 1). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) governs the procedures for supporting factual positions in support of or in opposition to a motion for summary judgment. Under Rule 56(c)(2), “[a] party may object that the material cited to support or dispute a fact cannot be presented in a form that would be admissible in evidence.” Additionally, this court's Local Rule 56.1 mandates that a non-movant in a summary judgment action include in her response “a section labeled ‘Statement of Material Facts in Dispute' that identifies the potentially determinative facts and factual disputes that the party contends demonstrate a dispute of fact precluding summary judgment.” The defendants contend that the following paragraphs of Ms. Aguilar's “Statement of Material Facts and Facts in Dispute” contain inadmissible hearsay: 6, 8, 10-13, 15, and 20. These paragraphs set forth information that Ms. Aguilar was allegedly told by the Honduran Office of Transportation, the Indiana BMV, and her insurance agent with regard to her ability to drive legally in Indiana on a Honduran driver's license, as well as information taken from the Indiana BMV's official webpage. Whether they are hearsay depends on what the statements are offered to prove. But what Ms. Aguilar was told or may have believed about the legality of driving in Indiana on a Honduran driver's license is largely irrelevant to the court's resolution of the defendants' motion for summary judgment; the court will therefore disregard these paragraphs for purposes of its analysis.

         The defendants also argue that paragraphs 14, 15, 18, 19, 20, 36, 37, 41, 60, and 68 do “no more than assert legal opinions, recite legal authorities, or summarize what she claims state agencies ‘require.'” (Dkt. 45 at p. 2). Paragraph 14, for instance, contains a lengthy excerpt of the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic. (Dkt. 41 at p. 4). Paragraphs 15, 19, and 20 provide information on the Indiana BMV's procedures for obtaining a driver's license. Paragraph 18 reads as follows:

Not only do citizens of other countries who move to Indiana from their home countries enjoy the one-year driving privilege bestowed upon them by U.S. treaty law, but, as a practical matter, the lengthy and time consuming process to obtain a valid Indiana driver's license make it impossible for them to obtain an Indiana driver's license within sixty days. Aguilar Aff. 14; Kirts Aff. 12.

(Dkt. 41 at p. 5). The court notes that the first part of the above-quoted paragraph, which asserts what “citizens of other countries” enjoy, is not supported by the cited portions of the record. Paragraph 36 simply recites the text of Indiana Code section 34-28-5-3. Paragraph 37 states: “For ordinance violations, officers have the discretion to either issue a verbal or written warning or issue a citation to appear in court for the violation. Carver Depo. 20; Ind. Code 34-28-5-3.” The court agrees that these statements are more legal than factual, but that incorrect denomination does not mean the court must disregard them if those statements of the law are nonetheless relevant to the resolution of the issues before the court.

         As to the other paragraphs challenged by the defendants, Paragraph 41 states: “Ms. Aguilar produced her valid Honduran driver's license and her permanent residency card. Aguilar Aff. 25.” (Dkt. 41 at p. 8). Because the defendants have not conceded the validity of Ms. Aguilar's Honduran license- referring to it with qualifying terms such as “what purported to be a Honduran driver's license” (Dkt. 30 at p. 3), or “what she claims is a license to drive issued by the Republic of Honduras” (Dkt. 45 at p. 2)-the claim that hers was a “valid Honduran license” is a potentially relevant fact. Paragraph 60 states, “Mrs. Aguilar's license was an international driver's license, issued to her in Honduras. Aguilar Aff. 5-6.” (Dkt. 41 at p. 11). This, too, is a potentially relevant fact. Moreover, the defendants have not disputed these assertions, and the court assumes their truth for purposes of the motion. And finally, in Paragraph 68, Ms. Aguilar asserts the following: “Chief Abbott is the final policymaker for the City of Seymour on the training received by Seymour police officers on this issue, and is the person responsible to decide if his officers need any additional training or provided clarification of the law they are about to enforce. Abbott Depo. 25-26.” (Dkt. 41 at p. 12). This statement is supported by the portion of the record cited and could ultimately be a relevant fact in this case.

         The court therefore does not “reject” all the challenged portions of Ms. Aguilar's statement of facts. Rather, it will consider her assertions only to the extent consistent with the foregoing analysis of them. The court now turns to the substantive issues raised by the summary judgment motion.

         II. Unreasonable Seizure/False Arrest under the Fourth Amendment

         It is well established that the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. See, e.g., Huff v. Reichert, 744 F.3d 999, 1004 (7th Cir. 2014). As the Second Circuit has recognized, two categories of seizures of the person implicating the protection of the Fourth Amendment have emerged in the caselaw. Posr v. Doherty, 944 F.2d 91, 98 (2d Cir. 1991). The first is an “investigative detention” or Terry stop, which employs “the least intrusive means reasonably available to verify or dispel the officer's suspicion in a short period of time, ” and is supportable by reasonable suspicion, rather than requiring probable cause. See id. (citing Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 500, 103 S.Ct. 1319, 1325 (1983) (“The scope of the detention must be carefully tailored to its underlying justification.”)). The Fourth Amendment allows officers to “stop and briefly detain a person for investigative purposes if the officer has a reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that criminal activity ‘may be afoot.'” United States v. Wilbourn, 799 F.3d 900, 908-09 (7th Cir. 2015) (citing United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7 (1989); Terry, 392 U.S. at 21). When determining whether an officer had reasonable suspicion, courts examine the totality of the circumstances known to the officer at the time of the stop, including the experience of the officer and the behavior and characteristics of the suspect. United States v. Lawshea, 461 F.3d 857, 859 (7th Cir. 2006).

         But a traffic stop will be considered an arrest for Fourth Amendment purposes if it extends beyond the time reasonably necessary to complete the purpose for which the stop was made. Huff v. Reichert, 744 F.3d 999, 1005 (7th Cir. 2014). Ms. Aguilar argues that this was indeed an arrest; the defendants maintain that it was a mere Terry stop. Nonetheless, the defendants contend in their reply brief that even if Ms. Aguilar was placed in “full custodial arrest, ” the facts show that Officer Carver had probable cause to do so. (See Dkt. 45 at p. 5). To be deemed reasonable, a warrantless arrest made in public must be supported by probable cause. Gutierrez v. Kermon, 722 F.3d 1003, 1008 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411, 414-24 (1976)). Probable cause to arrest exists if the totality of the circumstances known to the officer at the time of the arrest would warrant a reasonable person's belief that the arrestee had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime. Id. The existence of probable cause is an absolute defense to a §1983 claim for false arrest. Id. at 1007.

         Here, Ms. Aguilar alleges in her amended complaint that the defendants falsely arrested her (and illegally seized her property).[2] (Dkt. 10). The defendants' initial memorandum in support of their motion for summary judgment frames the issue as a reasonable Fourth Amendment seizure (or reasonably prolonged traffic stop), rather than a false arrest. (Dkt. 30 at p. 8). But their reply brief argues that “even if it is as [Ms.] Aguilar contends and she was placed in full custodial arrest, the facts presented to Officer Carver gave him the constitutional authority to effectuate such an arrest.” (Dkt. 45 at p. 5).

         The court does not need to decide, nor will it, whether Ms. Aguilar's detention was a Terry stop or an arrest and, if the latter, whether it was supported by probable cause. As explained in section III below, the right of Ms. Aguilar to drive legally in Indiana on her Honduran driver's license is, at best for her, not clear. Officer Carver therefore has qualified immunity on the false arrest claim. And because, as explained in section V below, there is no evidence to support Monell liability of the city for the arrest based on failure to train, there is no need to address the claim further.

         III. Qualified Immunity for Officer Carver

         “Qualified immunity protects an officer from liability if a reasonable officer could have believed that the action taken was lawful, in light of clearly established law and the information the officer possessed at the time.” Phillips v. Community Ins. Corp., 678 F.3d 513, 527-28 (7th Cir. 2012). Thus, the court examines two questions: (1) whether a constitutionally protected right has been violated and (2) if so, whether the right was clearly established at the time of the violation. Alexander v. City of Milwaukee, 474 F.3d 437, 444 (7th Cir. 2007). An officer is entitled to qualified immunity where clearly established law does not show that his conduct violated the Fourth Amendment. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 243-44 (2009) (in which the Supreme Court held that in resolving government officials' qualified immunity claims, courts need not first determine whether facts alleged or shown by plaintiff constitute violation of a constitutional right). This inquiry turns on the objective legal reasonableness of the action, assessed in light of the legal rules that were clearly established at the time it was taken. Id. at 244 (internal quotation omitted).

         The Seventh Circuit has also held that “a court can grant qualified immunity even when an official's conduct violated clearly established law (which he is presumed to know) under some circumstances when the official relied on legal advice in taking action.” Finch v. City of Indianapolis, 886 F.Supp.2d 945, 979 (S.D. Ind. 2012) (citing Davis v. Zirkelbach, 149 F.3d 614 (7th Cir. 1998)). In general, advice of counsel does not give rise to a qualified immunity defense; but some circumstances can give rise to the extraordinary level, and the Davis court noted a number of objective factors that may tend to demonstrate that the reliance and advice are of the extraordinary type appropriate to insulate the official from liability. See Davis, 149 F.3d at 620. These factors include the following:

Relevant factors include how unequivocal, and specifically tailored to the particular facts giving rise to the controversy, the advice was, whether complete information had been provided to the advising attorney(s), the prominence and competence of the attorney(s), and how soon after the advice was received the disputed action was taken.

Id. (quoting V-1 Oil Co. v. Wyoming, 902 F.2d 1482, 88-89 (10th Cir. 1990) (internal quotations, citations, and footnotes omitted).

         A. “Advice of Counsel” Qualified Immunity

         The court will address the latter issue first: the defendants' argument that Officer Carver's telephone call to Deputy Prosecutor Tyler Banks for legal advice entitles him to qualified immunity. The court finds that Officer Carver is not entitled to qualified immunity under the advice-of-counsel exception. As discussed above, advice of counsel gives rise to a qualified immunity defense only in extraordinary circumstances, and they are not present here. To begin with, the defendants have provided very little information about the legal advice allegedly given to Officer Carver. In his deposition, Ms. Aguilar's attorney asked Officer Carver about his call to Deputy Prosecutor Tyler Banks, and the following colloquy occurred:

[Officer Carver]: I called Deputy Prosecutor Banks. .....
[Ms. Aguilar's attorney]: What did you tell him?
A: Basically I explained to him the traffic stop in itself, reason why I pulled them over, the things I that had acquired during the traffic stop is what I explained to him. .....
Q: Okay. You say you advised Deputy Prosecutor Banks that you had stopped her for the headlight violation; correct?
A: That is correct.
Q: And that she had a document that she said was a valid Honduran license; correct?
A: Yes, that she advised that, yes.
Q: And did you advise him whether you had determined whether that's a valid license or not?
A: No. There's no way for me to determine that. .....
Q: And why did you call Tyler Banks?
A: Basically the reason why I called him is because I wanted to, number one, give her the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to make sure that I did everything possible, that I made the right call[.] . . . She was pretty adamant that she was able to drive, and she had said that her husband told her she could drive and that the insurance company had told her she could drive. I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing. .....
Q: . . . Did you tell Tyler Banks that you were going to have her taken to jail?
A: That was the whole basis of me calling him is to get his determination on what he thought would be the best setup for this deal.
Q: Did he advise you on what the law was in driving on a foreign national license in the United States?
A: He did not.
Q: Did he express that the law is somewhat confused in that area and he wasn't sure whether that was illegal or not?
A: All he advised me that based on what I advised that the best option would be to cite her in to court.
Q: The best option rather than take her to jail?
A: There were only two alternatives at that point. He advised me that he couldn't tell me. You know, you can never just say do this or do that, you know, but he said your best option given the situation would be cite her in to court.
Q: So he didn't tell you, hey, what you've told me that she's done an illegal act. Go ahead and arrest her; correct?
A: He didn't advise me not to. He just advised that your better option would be to ...

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