United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division
OPINION AND ORDER
P. SIMON, JUDGE
Michael Wright, a prisoner without a lawyer, filed a lawsuit
against two Elkhart police officers alleging they violated
his Fourth Amendment rights. A filing by an unrepresented
party “is to be liberally construed, and a pro se
complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less
stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by
lawyers.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94
(2007) (quotation marks and citations omitted). Nevertheless,
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, I must review the merits
of a prisoner complaint and dismiss it if the action is
frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which
relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief against a
defendant who is immune from such relief.
alleges on May 24, 2018, he was arrested and his wife's
car was searched. He is suing because he believes the arrest
and search violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Wright has
attached a copy of the police report, but he disputes many of
the facts presented in that report. Though I will note many
of these disputes, for the purpose of this screening, I am
relying only on his version of the disputed events.
report says Wright was driving the car when it was pulled
over. Wright makes no mention of driving and says the car was
lawfully parked. The report says “a bolt was missing
from the plate. The plate was improperly displayed not in a
horizontal position and appeared not securely fastened as
though it was going to fall off.” ECF 1-1 at 1. Wright
notes he was not formally charged with the improper display
of the plate but does not dispute it was improperly
displayed. The report says Wright exited the vehicle and put
his hands in his pocket and waistband. The report says the
officer drew his gun and ordered Wright back into his car
until another officer arrived on the scene. The report says
Wright “continued to reach around the floorboard of the
vehicle.” Id. Wright acknowledges he was
ordered back into the car, but he disputes the report's
description of his physical movements. The report says when
another officer arrived, Cpl. Young ordered Wright to exit
the vehicle so he could conduct “a pat down for officer
safety [before putting] him into handcuffs and place[ing] him
into the rear of my patrol vehicle.” Id.
Wright acknowledges he was handcuffed and put in the police
car. The report says the Cpl. Young knew from previous calls
that Wright was a felon “known for violent crimes who
also is known to carry handguns.” Id. Wright
says Cpl. Young knew him because Cpl. Young previously had
sex with his wife. Wright says he has only one violent crime
on his record, but no gun related offenses. He also says Cpl.
Young has never responded to any calls involving him.
this point, here are the central facts based on the complaint
filed by Wright: Cpl. Young saw Wright in the driver's
seat of a car with an improperly displayed license plate; so
he ordered Wright out of the car, frisked him, handcuffed
him, and put him into the back seat of a police car. So
“[t]he question is whether the Fourth Amendment forbids
a warrantless arrest for a minor criminal offense . .
..” Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S.
318, 323 (2001). In Atwater, the United States
Supreme Court answered the question saying, “it does
not.” Id. The plaintiff in that case was
arrested for a “seatbelt violation punishable only by a
fine . . . not less than $25 or more than $50.”
Id. Here, Indiana Code 9-18.1-4-4(b)(1) requires a
license plate to be “securely fastened, in a horizontal
and upright position . . ..” Pursuant to Indiana Code
34-28-5-4(f)(3), the fine for this offense ranges from $35.50
to $500 depending on various circumstances. The facts alleged
by Wright are not meaningfully different than those in
Atwater and the answer must therefore be the same.
Cpl. Young did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he
seized Wright on May 24, 2018.
Wright was seized, Cpl. Young returned to the car and
“observed in plain view on the passenger's seat of
the vehicle a small clear plastic jewelry baggie [with] a
clear crystal like substance . . . suspected [to be] crystal
methamphetamine . . ..” ECF 1-1 at 1. A warrantless
seizure is justified under the plain view doctrine when: (1)
a law enforcement officer is lawfully present; (2) and item
is in the plain view of the officer; and (3) the
incriminating nature of the item is immediately apparent.
United States v. Berkowitz, 927 F.2d 1376, 1388 (7th
Cir. 1991). Thus is the case here. Cpl. Young was lawfully
looking into the car. The baggie was in plain view. Cpl.
Young recognized the substance was an illegal drug. Wright
acknowledges throwing the baggie onto the passenger seat and
admits it was his. So seizing the baggie did not violate the
Fourth Amendment and a field test result later showed the
substance was methamphetamines.
discovery of crystal meth also constituted another basis for
arresting Wright and continuing the search of the vehicle.
“[A]n automobile search incident to a recent
occupant's arrest is constitutional (1) if the arrestee
is within reaching distance of the vehicle during the search,
or (2) if the police have reason to believe that the vehicle
contains evidence relevant to the crime of arrest.”
Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229, 234 (2011)
(quotation marks and citation omitted). Here, though Wright
was not within reaching distance of the vehicle, it was
reasonable for Cpl. Young to believe the vehicle contained
other evidence relevant to the drug offense. So searching the
vehicle did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
alleges after he was given his Miranda rights, Cpl.
Young coerced him into talking by asking him questions.
Certain types of police conduct may violate the Fourth
Amendment and result in the exclusion of evidence against a
suspect. See Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279,
287 (1991) (credible threat of physical violence is
sufficient to render a suspect's confession the product
of coercion). However, Wright does not allege he asserted his
right to remain silent nor that any physical force or threats
were made against him. See Berghuis v. Thompkins,
560 U.S. 370, 388 (2010). Therefore when the police continued
to ask him questions, it was not a violation of his Fourth
alleges a warrant was eventually obtained to fully search his
vehicle and to open a safe secured under the driver's
seat. He speculates the warrant may not have been lawfully
obtained, but he has provided no facts from which it can be
plausibly inferred that it was not. A complaint must contain
sufficient factual matter to “state a claim that is
plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v.
Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Because these
allegations do not, he has not stated a Fourth Amendment
claim based on the acquisition of the search warrant.
Wright makes several allegations about things that were said
to his wife. It is beyond the scope of this lawsuit to
determine whether his wife might have a claim if she were to
file a lawsuit. It is sufficient merely to note she is not a
party to this lawsuit.
complaint does not state a claim. Though it seems unlikely
Wright has additional facts with which he can state a claim
against either of these two defendants based on his arrest
and the search of the vehicle, if he does he may file an
amended complaint. See Luevano v. Wal-Mart, 722 F.3d
1014 (7th Cir. 2013).
these reasons, the court:
(1) DIRECTS the clerk to place this cause number on a blank
Prisoner Complaint (INND Rev. 8/16) form and send it to James
(2) GRANTS James Michael Wright until December
20, 2018, to file an amended complaint on ...