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Stone v. Whitt

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

August 9, 2019

KIEL STONE, Plaintiff,
v.
RON WHITT, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO JUDGE

         Kiel Stone alleges that he was unlawfully stopped by Officer Ron Whitt. He sued Officer Whitt, plus the Town of New Carlisle, the New Carlisle Police Department, and the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, alleging violations of his constitutional rights. All of the defendants moved to dismiss the amended complaint. The Court grants those motions except as to Mr. Stone's claim against Officer Whitt for stopping him in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Kiel Stone alleges that he was driving in New Carlisle, Indiana, in November 2016, when he was pulled over by Officer Ron Whitt of the New Carlisle Police Department. He alleges that he was not speeding at the time, and that he had not committed any other traffic infractions or broken any laws. Officer Whitt approached his car and told Mr. Stone that his vehicle matched the description of a suspect in a domestic violence incident and that his license plate was obstructed by a trailer hitch. Mr. Stone alleges that those statements were false. He asserts that his vehicle was unique and very rare, and that it could not have been reasonably confused with the vehicle associated with the domestic violence suspect. He further asserts that Officer Whitt was personally familiar with his vehicle and knew it did not belong to that individual. In addition, Mr. Stone alleges that the license plate was not obscured by a trailer hitch, which he argues is corroborated by the dash cam video of the stop.

         In November 2018, Mr. Stone filed this suit against Officer Whitt, alleging that Officer Whitt violated his constitutional rights by pulling him over without justification. Mr. Stone later filed an amended complaint in which he added three new defendants: the Town of New Carlisle, the New Carlisle Police Department, and the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy. The defendants each moved to dismiss, and those motions are now ripe.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court construes the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, accepts the factual allegations as true, and draws all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Reynolds v. CB Sports Bar, Inc., 623 F.3d 1143, 1146 (7th Cir. 2010). A complaint must contain only a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). That statement must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009), and raise a right to relief above the speculative level. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). However, a plaintiff's claim need only be plausible, not probable. Indep. Trust Corp. v. Stewart Info. Servs. Corp., 665 F.3d 930, 935 (7th Cir. 2012). Evaluating whether a plaintiff's claim is sufficiently plausible to survive a motion to dismiss is “‘a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.'” McCauley v. City of Chicago, 671 F.3d 611, 616 (7th Cir. 2011) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Mr. Stone alleges his rights were violated when he was unlawfully stopped without justification. He seeks to hold four defendants liable for that alleged violation: Officer Whitt, the New Carlisle Police Department, the Town of New Carlisle, and the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy. All of them have moved to dismiss the claims, and the Court addresses each defendant in turn.

         First, though, the Court must address the materials properly before it on a motion to dismiss. In support of his motion, Officer Whitt submitted an affidavit describing his interaction with Mr. Stone and the reasons he stopped Mr. Stone. He and the town defendants rely on that affidavit to argue that the stop was justified and that Mr. Stone's allegations to the contrary are false. The Court cannot consider such an affidavit at this stage, though. A motion to dismiss tests the sufficiency of a complaint's allegations, not their truth. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b), (d); Reed v. Palmer, 906 F.3d 540, 548 (7th Cir. 2018). If the Court were to consider this extrinsic evidence, it would need to convert the motion to a motion for summary judgment, Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d), but that is not warranted. The factual circumstances of the incident need to be explored through discovery, during which the parties could take depositions and seek the production of documents or videos pertaining to the incident. The defendants have offered no justification for short-circuiting that process here, so the Court considers only the allegations in the complaint, not the evidence submitted by the defendants.

         A. Officer Whitt

         Mr. Stone first asserts a claim against Officer Whitt, arguing that Officer Whitt violated his rights when he initiated a traffic stop without justification. In moving to dismiss, Officer Whitt first argues that no violation occurred because he was justified in stopping Mr. Stone for having an obscured license plate and because his vehicle matched the description of a vehicle connected to a person involved in a domestic dispute. This argument, however, relies almost entirely on accepting as true the statements in his affidavit, instead of the allegations in Mr. Stone's complaint. The Court cannot do so at the pleading stage, and Mr. Stone's allegations suffice to plead a Fourth Amendment violation. Ms. Stone alleges that his license plate was not obscured by any trailer hitch, and that the vehicle he was driving was unique and could not have reasonably been confused for the vehicle described in the police dispatch. The complaint also alleges that Mr. Stone was not committing any traffic violations at the time. Based on those allegations, Mr. Stone has adequately pled that he was stopped without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, which would violate the Fourth Amendment. Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393, 396-97 (2014); United States v. Garcia-Garcia, 633 F.3d 608, 612 (7th Cir. 2011). Officer Whitt is entitled to challenge the truth of those allegations at a later stage, but they suffice to allege an unlawful seizure, so the Court cannot dismiss the claim on that basis.

         Officer Whitt also argues that, even if there was a violation, the claim should be dismissed on qualified immunity. That argument likewise relies on crediting his affidavit over Mr. Stone's allegations, though, which the Court cannot do. The argument is also premature. The Seventh Circuit has stated that “[b]ecause a qualified immunity defense so closely depends ‘on the facts of the case,' a ‘complaint is generally not dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) on qualified immunity grounds.'” Reed, 906 F.3d at 548 (quoting Alvarado v. Litscher, 256 F.3d 648, 651 (7th Cir. 2001)). That is true here. Perhaps, for example, the facts will show that Mr. Stone's license plate was obscured, or at least that it reasonably appeared to be so to Officer Whitt, as stated in Officer Whitt's affidavit. Officer Whitt will also have the ability at later stages to offer evidence as to what information he received about a vehicle connected to a domestic dispute, and to argue that the information justified him in stopping Mr. Stone's vehicle. But as already discussed, the allegations in Mr. Stone's complaint are to the contrary. It was clearly established at the time of the stop that a traffic stop is unlawful if not supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or probable cause that a traffic violation occurred. Navarette, 572 U.S. at 396- 97; Garcia-Garcia, 633 F.3d at 612. Because the complaint does not supply the details on which Officer Whitt bases his qualified immunity defense, the Court cannot dismiss the claim on that ground.

         Finally, the Court notes that Mr. Stone's complaint includes a passing reference to a violation of his “right to travel” under the Fourteenth Amendment. He alleges only a single instance in which he was stopped, though, and the lawfulness of that seizure is governed by the Fourth Amendment. Accordingly, the ...


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