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Coleman v. County of Lincoln

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 12, 2018

CHAD and STACIA COLEMAN, Plaintiffs,
COUNTY OF LINCOLN, et al., Defendants.



         This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion and Supporting Memorandum for Qualified Immunity and Summary Judgment. Doc. 24. Having reviewed the motion, the attendant briefing (docs. 33, 35), and the relevant law, the Court will GRANT Defendants' motion.

         I. Background

         This case stems from events surrounding a warrantless search of Plaintiffs' residence on February 2, 2016. See doc. 3 at 6-8. During the search, Plaintiff Chad Coleman received a citation for possession of narcotics paraphernalia in violation of N.M. Stat. Ann. § 30-31-25.1. Id. at 8. He was subsequently criminally prosecuted by the State of New Mexico in the Lincoln County Magistrate Court. See doc. 33, Ex. C.[1]However, the state magistrate granted Mr. Coleman's Motion to Suppress Evidence on August 29, 2016, finding that the search and seizure of Mr. Coleman's property was “constitutionally unreasonable and a violation of [Mr. Coleman's] rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Art. II., Sec. 10 of the N.M. Constitution.”[2] Id. at 2.

         Plaintiffs filed suit in this Court on June 21, 2017. Doc. 1. Plaintiffs then filed an Amended Complaint on July 13, 2017 and a Second Amended Complaint on July 27, 2017, alleging federal constitutional and state law claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the New Mexico Tort Claims Act (“NMTCA”). Docs. 3, 6. Specifically, in their Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs bring (1) claims against the individual Defendants Randall Wikoff and John Does I-III for false arrest and detention in violation of state law under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act (“NMTCA”), (2) claims against Defendants Sheriff Robert Shepperd and the County of Lincoln for respondeat superior liability arising from the NMTCA claims; (3) claims against Defendants Wikoff and John Does I-III for unconstitutional search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment under § 1983, (4) claims against Defendants Shepperd and the County of Lincoln for malicious prosecution and abuse of process in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments under § 1983, [3] and (5) a supervisory liability claim against Defendants Shepperd and the County of Lincoln, and an official-capacity municipal liability claim against Defendant County of Lincoln, both arising from the § 1983 claims. Doc. 6 at 9-16.[4]

         On October 5, 2017, Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, which was fully briefed on November 14, 2017. Docs. 24, 33, 35, 36. In the motion, Defendants Wikoff and Shepperd seek summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. See doc. 24 at 10-20. Defendant the County of Lincoln further asserts it is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiffs' malicious prosecution and abuse of process claims on the basis that Defendant Wikoff had probable cause to cite Plaintiff Chad Coleman for possession of drug paraphernalia, and there is no other overt misuse of process alleged. Id. at 16-20. Additionally, Defendants Shepperd and the County of Lincoln seek summary judgment on Plaintiffs' supervisory and official-capacity municipal liability claims on the basis that neither type of claim will lie under § 1983 without a showing of a constitutional violation in the first instance, and that Plaintiffs have failed to show that any constitutional violation occurred. Id. at 21-22. Alternatively, Defendants Shepperd and the County of Lincoln argue that even if a constitutional violation has been shown, Plaintiffs failed to establish that any “policy or custom” promulgated by the County or by Sheriff Shepherd was the moving force behind such violation, as would be necessary to prevail on these claims. Id. at 22-23.

         II. Standard of Review

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), this Court must ”grant summary judgment 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). The movant bears the initial burden of “show[ing] ‘that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.'” Bacchus Indus., Inc. v. Arvin Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d 887, 891 (10th Cir. 1991) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986)). Once the movant meets this burden, the non-moving party is required to designate specific facts showing that “there are . . . genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324.

         Notably, however, summary judgment motions based upon the defense of qualified immunity are reviewed differently from other summary judgment motions. Martinez v. Beggs, 563 F.3d 1082, 1088 (10th Cir. 2009). “When a defendant asserts qualified immunity at summary judgment, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that: (1) the defendant violated a constitutional right and (2) the constitutional right was clearly established.” Id. (citing Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231-32 (2009)). This is a “strict two-part test” that must be met before the defendant asserting qualified immunity again “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.” Clark v. Edmunds, 513 F.3d 1219, 1222 (10th Cir. 2008). The Court may address the two prongs of the test in any order. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236.

         “Qualified immunity is applicable unless the official's conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right.” Pearson, 555 U.S. at 232 (citing Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987)). “A Government official's conduct violates clearly established law when, at the time of the challenged conduct, ‘[t]he contours of [a] right [are] sufficiently clear' that every ‘reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.' We do not require a case directly on point, but existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011) (quoting Anderson, 483 U.S. at 640 and citing Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986)). “Ordinarily, in order for the law to be clearly established, there must be 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.” Clark v. Wilson, 625 F.3d 686, 690 (10th Cir. 2010) (quotation omitted).

         In determining whether the plaintiff has met its burden, the Court still construes the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as the non-moving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007); see Riggins v. Goodman, 572 F.3d 1101, 1107 (10th Cir. 2009) (“The plaintiff must demonstrate on the facts alleged both that the defendant violated his constitutional or statutory rights, and that the right was clearly established at the time of the alleged unlawful activity.”); Riggins, 572 F.3d at 1107 (noting that generally the Court “accept[s] the facts as the plaintiff alleges them”). However, at the summary judgment stage, “a plaintiff's version of the facts must find support in the record.” Thomson v. Salt Lake County, 584 F.3d 1304, 1312 (10th Cir. 2009).

         Whether resolving an “ordinary” summary judgment motion or one asserting qualified immunity, the Court decides the motion on the basis of the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and must keep in mind three principles. First, the court's role is not to weigh the evidence, but to assess the threshold issue of whether a genuine issue exists as to material facts requiring a trial. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). “An issue is ‘genuine' if there is sufficient evidence on each side so that a rational trier of fact could resolve the issue either way. An issue of fact is ‘material' if under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Thom v. Bristol Myers Squibb Co., 353 F.3d 848, 851 (10th Cir. 2003) (internal citation omitted). Second, the Court must resolve all reasonable inferences and doubts in favor of the non-moving party, and construe all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 550-55 (1999). Third, the court cannot decide any issues of credibility. See Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255. “[T]o survive the . . . motion, [the nonmovant] need only present evidence from which a jury might return a verdict in his favor.” Id. at 257.

         III. Undisputed Facts

         The Local Rules regarding summary judgment motions require the non-movant's Response to “contain a concise statement of the material facts cited by the movant as to which the non-movant contends a genuine issue does exist.” Additionally:

Each fact in dispute must be numbered, must refer with particularity to those portions of the record upon which the non-movant relies, and must state the number of the movant's fact that is disputed. All material facts set forth in the Memorandum will be deemed undisputed unless specifically controverted. The Response may set forth additional facts other than those which respond to the Memorandum which the non- movant contends are material to the resolution of the motion. Each additional fact must be lettered and must refer with particularity to those portions of the record upon which the non-movant relies.

D.N.M.LR-Civ. 56.1(b).[5]

         Based on the facts presented by the movants and other facts gleaned from the record, the Court finds the following facts to be undisputed for the purposes of Defendants' motion:

         1. On February 1, 2016, a service technician employed by Walker A/C & Refrigeration responded to a service call at Plaintiffs' residence (“the Coleman residence”) at 100 Alto Alps in Alto, New Mexico, to work on Plaintiffs' malfunctioning central heating system. The technician worked on the system until approximately 10:00 p.m. that day. Doc. 33 at 11; doc. 35 at 4.

         2. The heating system at the Coleman residence is located in the basement, which can be reached via a stairwell from the living room. Doc. 33 at 11; doc. 35 at 4; doc. 24, Ex. C, at 5:00-5:30.

         3. Plaintiffs assert that to their knowledge, the service technician remained only in the basement during the service call and did not enter any other part of the Coleman residence. Doc. 33, Ex. A, ¶ 6; id., Ex. B, ¶¶ 5-6.

         4. On the same day as the service call at the Coleman residence, February 1, 2016, Lincoln County Sheriff Robert Shepperd received a phone call from Shane Walker, the owner of Walker A/C & Refrigeration regarding the technician's reported observations during the service call. Doc. 35 at 1-2, 4; Doc. 24, Ex. 1, ¶¶ 4-5.

         5. Defendants assert that Mr. Walker told Sheriff Shepperd that there were several firearms at the Coleman residence, and he was concerned that a young child had access to them. Id. at ¶ 6.

         6. On February 2, 2016, Sheriff Shepperd directed Deputy Randall Wikoff to perform a welfare check at the Coleman residence. Id. at ¶ 7; doc. 24, Ex. 2, ¶ 4.

         7. The White Mountain Narcotics Enforcement Unit (“NEU”), including Ruidoso Police Department Officer Wallace Downs and United States Customs and Border Protection Officer Chris Baca, assisted Deputy Wikoff and Deputy Robert Odom during the welfare check. Id. at ¶ 11; doc. 24, Ex. 2, ¶ 6.

         8. The team arrived at approximately 9:30 a.m., and knocked numerous times over the span of several minutes. Doc. 24, Ex. 3 (Deputy Odom's lapel video footage) at 0:00-5:00.

         9. The team wore bulletproof vests and side arms. Id. at 1:45-2:00.

         10. Plaintiff Chad Coleman (“Mr. Coleman”) answered the side door. Deputy Odom introduced himself, and said he needed to speak with Mr. Coleman and check on the children in the house. Id. at 4:20-5:00.

         11. Deputy Odom asked whether anyone else was home, and Mr. Coleman responded that his wife and daughter were upstairs. Id. at 5:05-5:30.

         12. Mr. Coleman invited the officers to come upstairs and explained that he had been sleeping downstairs. Deputy Odom followed Mr. Coleman up the staircase, while the other officers met them around out front. Mr. Coleman stated that he would let Deputy Odom's “buddies” into the house, and then did so. Id. at 5:00-9:00.

         13. On the second entry-level floor of Plaintiffs' split-level home, Plaintiff Stacia Coleman (“Mrs. Coleman”) and her daughter appeared. Neither individual was injured or in apparent distress. Id. at 5:50.

         14. An officer told Mrs. Coleman that they were conducting a welfare check to ensure the safety of Plaintiffs' child. Id. at 4:30-6:06.

         15. Deputy Odom asked Mr. and Mrs. Coleman for their identification and then followed Mrs. Coleman into a bedroom where she collected her identification and presented it to Deputy Odom. Simultaneously, Deputy Wikoff spoke to Mr. Coleman in the living room. Id. at 6:25-7:30.

         16. Mrs. Coleman asked Deputy Odom whether everything was okay, and he explained that there was a report regarding a child's access to firearms in the home. Id. at 9:15-10:00.

         17. Mrs. Coleman replied that there were firearms in the home in a gun safe, but that Deputy Odom would have to ask Mr. Coleman about them. Id. at 9:20- 9:30.

         18. Several officers restated to Mr. Coleman that they have visited to make sure that everything within the Coleman home is safe for Plaintiffs' child. Id. at 7:40-7:55. One NEU officer saied, “We appreciate you cooperating, man.” Id. at 7:50-7:56.

         19. Another officer asked, “It ok if we look back here [referring to the back rooms of the house, including the bedroom and bathroom]?” Id. at 8:08-8:13. Mr. Coleman responded, “yeah, ” but warned the officers to “watch [their] step” due to the mess. Id. at 8:10-8:25. Mr. Coleman gestured to where the bathroom and bedroom were located, and the officers began to enter the rooms. Id.

         20. An NEU officer spoke to Mr. Coleman about firearms on the bathroom floor and counter, and expressed concern for the safety of Plaintiffs' child. Mr. Coleman said the family never goes in there and that his daughter stays in her room or the living room. Id. at 11:35-12:20.

         21. The officer explained that firearms should not be anywhere accessible to his child, and that the current situation posed a serious child safety issue. Id. at 11:55-12:15.

         22. The officer asked Mr. Coleman whether he had drugs, other than the marijuana the officers had already discovered, in the ashtray. Mr. Coleman said the only marijuana he had was what was remaining in the ashtray, and denied the presence of other drugs. Id. at 12:30-13:05; doc. 24, Ex. 2, Attachment 1.

         23. Deputy Wikoff announced that both guns in the bathroom were chambered with the safeties disengaged, and asked Mr. Coleman to put them in the gun safe. Doc. 24, Ex. 3, 13:35-13:40.

         24. An NEU officer noted that that he would like to take a look around, because there were bullets and firearms everywhere. Id. at 13:45. Mr. Coleman responded, “Sure, sure.” Id. at 13:48-13:52.

         25. An NEU officer asked about a gun lying on the kitchen counter, inquired whether there were any other guns in another bag, and requested permission to search the bag. Mr. Coleman agreed, and the officer inspected the bag. Id. at 14:30-15:10.

         26. From inside the bag, the officer pulled out a small neoprene container, and asked what was inside. Mr. Coleman told the officer that he was ...

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