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Niederstadt v. Eldridge

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 25, 2017

LARRY NIEDERSTADT, ROSE GUILEZ, and ALAN DUFFY, Plaintiffs,
v.
PRESTON ELDRIDGE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          STEPHAN M. VIDMAR United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant's Motion and Supporting Memorandum for Qualified Immunity and Summary Judgment, filed January 17, 2017. [Doc. 39]. Plaintiffs responded on February 21, 2017. [Doc. 43]. Defendant replied on March 10, 2017. [Doc. 44]. Having considered the briefing, the record, and the relevant law, the Court finds that Defendant's motion is well-taken and will be GRANTED.

         Background

         Otero County Undersheriff David Hunter received a tip from a confidential informant that Plaintiff Guilez was trafficking marijuana at her residence in Tularosa, New Mexico. [Doc. 39] at 3. He obtained a warrant to search her property.[1] Id. The warrant[2] described the property to be searched as consisting of a “single family residence located at 420 Guilez Avenue, ” the driveway to which was located “200 yards north from the intersection of Guilez Avenue and Old Mescalero Road.” [Doc. 39-1] at 6. The warrant described the residence as “a small camper trailer, approximately 16' in length, white in color with a[n] orange and yellow stripe running horizontally the length of the camper.” Id. In addition to the residence (i.e., the camper trailer), the warrant also authorized the search of “any and all curtilage, out buildings, tool boxes, safes/lockboxes, refuse containers, vehicles, or any type of container(s), secured or unsecured, located on the property. . . .” Id.

         The warrant listed the address of the property to be searched as “420 Guilez Avenue.” [Doc. 33] at 1 ¶ 3. There is no such address in Otero County. Id. There is, however, a Guilez Lane. Id. And, while there is no “420 Guilez Lane, ” a gate at the entranceway to the property described in the search warrant identified it as “420 Guilez Lane.” Id.; [Doc. 39] at 4; [Doc. 39-1] at 9.

         Defendant and his search team executed the warrant on January 25, 2012. Defendant arrived at the gate identifying the property as “420 Guilez Lane.” [Doc. 39] at 4. The property appeared to match the description in the warrant. Id. Defendant observed the camper trailer as well as other “out buildings.” Id. West of the camper trailer was a separate trailer house, not referenced or described specifically in the search warrant. [Doc. 43] at 2. See generally [Doc. 39-1] at 6-8. Defendant searched the camper trailer but found that it had been abandoned and contained nothing relevant to the investigation. [Doc. 33] at 3 ¶ 11. Defendant proceeded to search the trailer house, where he discovered contraband. Id. at 3 ¶ 12; [Doc. 39] at 5. Plaintiff Duffy was at the trailer house at the time the search was executed, and Defendant detained him. [Doc. 39] at 5. Duffy stated that he was looking for Guilez and that he did not reside there. Id. Defendant subsequently released Duffy. Id.

         Plaintiffs' claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 arise from their allegation that Defendant's search of “420 Guilez” actually spanned two separate pieces of property: 1014 Guilez Lane (on which the camper trailer was located), and 1023 Guilez Lane (on which the trailer house was located and Duffy was seized). [Doc. 33] at 2 ¶¶ 4-5, 3 ¶¶ 13-16. Guilez and Niederstadt resided at the latter address. Id. at 2 ¶ 5. The properties were adjacent. Id. There were no boundaries (e.g., fences or walls) delineating the two properties, [3] though there was some kind of gate through which Defendant apparently passed to get to the trailer house.[4] [Doc. 39] at 4; [Doc. 39-1] at 2 ¶ 17; [Doc. 43] at 6 ¶ 6, 8 ¶ 6.

         Plaintiffs allege that Defendant violated their Fourth Amendment rights by (1) searching Guilez and Niederstadt's property (i.e., 1023 Guilez Lane and the trailer house on the property), and (2) detaining Duffy in the course of their search of the property “without a warrant, probable cause, reasonable suspicion, or any other legal justification for doing so.” [Doc. 33] at 4 ¶¶ 20- 23; [Doc. 43] at 4. Plaintiffs do not object to the search of 1014 Guilez Lane and the camper trailer. [Doc. 43] at 3. Plaintiffs contend that Defendant violated their Fourth Amendment rights when he subsequently entered 1023 Guilez Lane and searched the trailer house on that property. Id. The warrant does not describe the trailer house, they assert, and no reasonable officer would confuse the camper trailer described in the warrant (white, with an orange or yellow horizontal stripe running across it) with the trailer house (pink in color with no stripe). Id. at 3-4. On this rationale alone, Plaintiffs conclude that Defendant violated clearly established law by searching 1023 Guilez Lane and detaining Duffy during the search. Id. at 4.

         Defendant argues that his search of 1023 Guilez Lane and seizure of Duffy did not violate the Fourth Amendment, much less clearly established law. He asserts that he reasonably believed he was executing a valid search warrant at the correct location. [Doc. 39] at 8-9. He notes that a gate at the entranceway to the property located at the coordinates specified in the warrant identified the property as “420 Guilez Lane, ” and that the property appeared to contain the camper trailer as described in the warrant, along with other outbuildings also referenced in the warrant. Id. at 9. He further contends that he reasonably believed he had entered onto one contiguous piece of property, i.e., the property described in the search warrant. Id. at 10. He argues that there were no “fences, walls, or other dividing boundaries” to suggest that the trailer house was part of a separate piece of property. Id. Defendant asserts that he reasonably-if mistakenly-believed he was “searching the curtilage and outbuildings of 420 Guilez.” Id.

         Summary Judgment and Qualified Immunity

         Summary judgment will be granted “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). If the movant meets this burden, the non-movant must come forward with specific facts, supported by admissible evidence, which demonstrate the presence of a genuine issue for trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). A genuine dispute exists if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party” on the issue. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Although all facts are construed in favor of the non-movant, the non-movant still has a responsibility to “go beyond the pleadings and designate specific facts so as to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to [his] case in order to survive summary judgment.” Johnson v. Mullin, 422 F.3d 1184, 1187 (10th Cir. 2005) (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         However, where a defendant asserts qualified immunity as a defense, the summary judgment analysis is modified. “When a defendant asserts a qualified immunity defense, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to satisfy a strict two-part test: first, the plaintiff must show that the defendant's actions violated a constitutional . . . right; second, the plaintiff must show that this right was clearly established at the time of the conduct at issue.” Clark v. Edmunds, 513 F.3d 1219, 1222 (10th Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). If the plaintiff satisfies this test, the defendant “then bear[s] the traditional burden of the movant for summary judgment- showing that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that he or she is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Courts have discretion to decide which of the two parts of the qualified immunity test to address first. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009). As to the “clearly established” prong, a right is clearly established when “every ‘reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.'” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011) (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987)). Ordinarily, “[i]n this circuit, to show that a right is clearly established, the plaintiff must point to ‘a Supreme Court or Tenth Circuit decision on point, or the clearly established weight of authority from other courts must have found the law to be as the plaintiff maintains.'” Callahan v. Unified Gov't of Wyandotte Cty., 806 F.3d 1022, 1027 (10th Cir. 2015) (quoting Estate of Booker v. Gomez, 745 F.3d 405, 427 (10th Cir. 2014)). While there need not be a case “directly on point, ” the “existing precedent must have placed the . . . constitutional question beyond debate.” al-Kidd, 563 U.S. at 741.

         The Supreme Court has cautioned the lower courts against defining the constitutional question “at a high level of generality.” Id. at 742. The salient inquiry, rather, is “whether the violative nature of the particular conduct is clearly established.” Aldaba v. Pickens, 844 F.3d 870, 877 (10th Cir. 2016) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308 (2015) (per curiam) (the inquiry into whether a right is clearly established “must be undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition” (internal quotation marks omitted)). Specificity in framing the right “is especially important in the Fourth Amendment context, ” where “[i]t is sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine . . . will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts.” Mullenix, 136 S.Ct. at 308 (first alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). The inquiry in such cases is not whether it was clearly established ‚Äúthat an unreasonable search or seizure violates ...


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