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Craft v. Wright

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 2, 2019

AL-RASHAAD R. CRAFT, Plaintiff,
v.
CHAD WRIGHT, in his official and individual capacities; and AHMAD WHITE, in his official and individual capacities, Defendants,

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          NANCY D. FREUDENTHAL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is a Fourth and First Amendment case regarding the arrest, detention and prosecution of Plaintiff Al-Rashaad R. Craft for alleged felony battery and disorderly conduct occurring in an incident when Mrs. Susan Stone struck him while he was recording his preaching in a public square in Hobbs, New Mexico. Plaintiff does not, however, sue Mrs. Stone in this case. Rather, Plaintiff sues the Hobbs Police Department officer -Detective Ahmad White - who investigated the incident and wrote a sworn Criminal Complaint to obtain a warrant for Plaintiffs arrest. Plaintiff sues White in his individual and official capacities. Plaintiff also sues another officer of the Hobbs Police Department, Captain Chad Wright, in his individual and official capacities for allegedly causing White to "find a reason" to arrest Plaintiff. Defendants move for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. CM/ECF Doc. 90. Plaintiff opposes, arguing summary judgment is inappropriate due to issues of material fact. Doc. 101. For the reasons that follow, the Court concludes Wright is entitled to qualified immunity on the individual capacity claims against him due to a lack of evidence tying him to Plaintiffs arrest, detention or prosecution. White is not entitled to summary judgment on qualified immunity for the Fourth Amendment and First Amendment claims. The official capacity claims against both White and Wright are dismissed based on Plaintiffs concession at the hearing on this motion.

         I. Undisputed Facts

         The following facts appear undisputed except where noted.[1] Plaintiff Al-Rashaad R. Craft is of African-American descent and Christian in religious belief. His father and grandfather were Southern Baptist preachers, and his father instilled in him the importance of ministering the word of God to all people. He believes projecting the word of God to be his obligation as a Christian.

         A. Plaintiff's Public Preaching and the Underlying Incident with Mrs. Stone

         For parts of 2014 and 2015, Plaintiff lived in Hobbs, New Mexico while working for the U.S. Department of Energy. Doc. 38 ¶¶ 1, 2, 30. On Saturday, April 18, 2015, Plaintiff went to the Shipp Street Plaza in Hobbs, New Mexico, set up his smartphone on a tripod, and began to record himself preaching. Defendants' Ex. 1, Craft Deposition, p. 65:13-20; Plaintiffs Ex. 1 ("Craft's Recording"). Shipp Street Plaza is a public forum or public square. Doc. 101, pp. 1-2, ¶ 1.

         Plaintiff had been in Hobbs for approximately eight months, during which time he preached in public almost "every weekend, or every other weekend." Craft Deposition, p. 33:12-24. Plaintiff recorded his preaching and then uploaded the recordings to his YouTube channel, "Hawashinawa Ma Ri." Craft Deposition, pp. 30:9-12; 31:4-20.

         Susan Stone's husband owned a store down the block from Shipp Street Plaza. While Plaintiff was preaching on this particular Saturday, Mrs. Stone approached him. Defendants' Ex. 2 (Plaintiffs April 18, 2015 audiovideo recording, hereafter "Plaintiffs Video"), starting at 8:07; Plaintiffs Ex. 1, Craft Recording.[2] Neither party prepared an official transcript of Plaintiff s Video.[3] The Court has watched and listened to Plaintiffs Video, and notes it shows the following facts.

         • While Plaintiff was preaching, Mrs. Stone approached Plaintiff from off-screen and started speaking loudly as he spoke. When Plaintiff attempted to continue preaching and reading out loud from the Bible he was holding open in his hands, Mrs. Stone repeatedly yelled over Plaintiffs voice, in somewhat slurred speech, "ye goddamn nut," "you goddamn nut," and turned Plaintiffs words against him ("you will be destroyed"), etc., while waving something that looks like a lighter-holder between him and his camera, and moving around him. Mrs. Stone asserted her right to be on public property too. At about one minute and twelve seconds of Mrs. Stone's intervention, the camera captures from Plaintiffs left-forward, Mrs. Stone's hand bringing her lighter-case up under the Bible and pushing it up and back into Plaintiffs face while he was reading out loud from it.

         • Plaintiff then turned and took a step off-camera to his forward-left, the direction from which Mrs. Stone's hand had just come. Simultaneous with Plaintiffs movement, he yelled "Watch out! Don't you ever touch me again!" Plaintiff immediately stepped back to where he had been, in front of his camera, looking still to his forward-left offscreen. Plaintiff s Ex. 1, 1:12-17. Later in the recording, Plaintiff tells a police officer that Mrs. Stone pushed him and then he pushed her. A man who later identified himself to police as Israel Loya-Lopez told police that he helped Mrs. Stone to get up from the ground.

         • Approximately two seconds later, Mrs. Stone can be heard saying she was "going to get her husband right now." Id., 1:19-21. Plaintiff turned to his right, seemed to point to onlooking bystanders in that direction, and said, "And I'm glad everyone saw that." Id., 1:22-26.

         • Meanwhile, a man later identified to be Mrs. Stone's husband, Mark Stone, approached from off-screen, confronted Plaintiff about knocking down Mrs. Stone, and although keeping his hands in his pockets, physically and verbally taunted Plaintiff to put his hands on him, also motioning to someone off-camera. Mrs. Stone meanwhile circled closer to Plaintiff in the background, yelling at him "How do you think I fell down?" Id. 1:26 and following. Plaintiff tells Mr. Stone to call the police and do what he has to. Mr. Stone continued to approach closer, and Plaintiff turned the camera to record Mr. and Mrs. Stone, referring to them as demons. In the process, this showed a third man was standing near to Mr. Stone, watching Plaintiff. Plaintiff removed his tunic[4]and further responded to Mr. Stone, saying to the effect any woman who puts her hands on him (like Mrs. Stone did) would feel the pain of Yahawa-shirdi-baba-shad.[5]

         • In response to either Mr. Stone or Mr. Loya-Lopez stating that you don't knock down a woman, Plaintiff said "then keep your hands off me." Mr. Stone taunted Plaintiff to knock him down. When Mr. Stone advanced to within inches of his face, Plaintiff asked Mr. Stone to back up, to which he said "No. Put your hand on me," and did not move away, while Mrs. Stone continued to shake her lighter-case at Plaintiff and yell at him. Finally, Plaintiff put his tunic back on and turned back to his phone camera. Mr. Stone moved close in and then said "You're a piece of sh*t, you know that. Yeah, you're a piece of sh*t." Plaintiffs Ex. 1, 3:30. At about 3:34, Mrs. Stone in the background touched the back of her head and said "my Ping head is hurting" and told Plaintiff he should "look on your camera and see where I was touching you," i.e., contending she had not touched Plaintiff.

         • At that point, Plaintiff said Mrs. Stone was drunk and would go to jail for public intoxication, to which Mrs. Stone replied that Plaintiff would go to jail, "you mother f*r." Plaintiff resumed reading from his Bible and expounded on these events as examples of the problems with the world he had been discussing before the incident.

         Defendants say Plaintiff pushed Mrs. Stone with both hands "to the ground." Doc. 90, p. 4 ¶ 7 (citing Plaintiffs Video, 9:14 to 9:17). Plaintiff says he "pushed the wom[a]n away, and she lost her balance and fell." Doc. 101, p. 3, ¶ 6.

         B. Initial Hobbs Police Department Response

         At that point, the Stones retreated a space away. Someone called the Hobbs Police Department, and Officers Brandon Ellis and Michael Thomas responded to the scene. Defendants' Ex. 3, Incident Report by Brandon Ellis ("Incident Report," p. 4; Deposition of Michael Thomas at pp. 14:7-10, 16:8-10). Officer Ellis took the lead and spoke to Mrs. Stone first.

         The parties disagree regarding many details of what the witnesses reported to Officer Ellis. Defendants rely largely on Ellis's summary of the conversations in his incident report and White's rendition of that summary in the Criminal Complaint, along with White's summaries of his own conversations with Loya-Lopez and the Stones. Plaintiff instead relies primarily on the officers' audiorecordings, particularly Ellis's Audiorecording. Plaintiffs Ex. 2 ("Ellis's Audiorecording"). That recording reflects Officer Ellis interviewed Mr. and Mrs. Stone together. A man's voice that sounds like Mr. Stone's (from the Plaintiffs Video) answered Ellis initially, saying "He's filming himself. He's here every week." The same voice reported that he did not see the whole interaction between Plaintiff and Mrs. Stone, but a "close friend" did. The same voice asserts Plaintiff was trying to "instigate" and becoming more "belligerent" all the time. Id., approximately 1:20. Later, the same male voice can be heard asserting Plaintiff was "preaching down with the white people." Id., approximately 2:05-20.

         Defendants claim Mrs. Stone told Ellis that she was waving her lighter in front of Mr. Craft's camera and telling him she had freedom of speech too when he pushed her with both hands to the ground. Plaintiff asserts no injuries were reported at the time, but in Ellis's Audiorecording Mrs. Stone reported she had pain in her rear, back and head. Mrs. Stone told Ellis she did not want an ambulance.

         Ellis then interviewed Plaintiff where he was continuing to record himself preaching. Plaintiffs Ex. A Pt. II (notice of lodging, January 4, 2018) at approximately 4:00-8:00.[6] Plaintiff told Ellis he had been preaching or prophesying when Mrs. Stone approached him, waved her lighter in front of his camera, and "talked smack" to him; Plaintiff said he ignored Ms. Stone because she wasn't touching him; but after about three minutes of this, Mrs. Stone pushed him and he pushed her back. Id. Ellis included this information in his incident report, and White included it in his Criminal Complaint.

         After Ellis went back to speak again with the other witnesses, Plaintiff stated loudly in their direction that the entire incident was on video. Plaintiffs Ex. A Pt. II at 9:55-10:08. Plaintiffs reference to his video is also audible in Ellis's Audiorecording.

         When Ellis returned to the Stones he asked for the witness whom Mr. Stone mentioned earlier. He then spoke with Mr. Loya-Lopez, apparently the person to whom Mr. Stone earlier referred to as his close friend. Mr. Loya-Lopez reported witnessing the incident. Ellis's Audiorecording at approximately 7:10; Incident Report, p. 5; Warrant and Criminal Complaint, p. 5. Mr. Loya-Lopez told Ellis that Mrs. Stone walked over to Plaintiff and "started messing with him [inaudible] he was preaching," waved her lighter in front of Plaintiff s camera, and Plaintiff pushed her. Loya-Lopez said that Mrs. Stone had never touched Plaintiff. Ellis's Audiorecording; Incident Report, p. 5; Warrant and Criminal Complaint, p. 5. Mr. Loya-Lopez compared the force of the push to what he would use if a 300-pound man was trying to give him problems. Ellis's Audiorecording at approximately 7:30.

         Ellis did not attempt to seize, view, obtain, or otherwise access any of Plaintiffs video recordings because he did not think about it at the time. Defendants' Ex. 5, Deposition of Brandon Ellis, 51:23-52:3.

         Officers Ellis and Thomas found no probable cause to make an arrest. They concluded the incident involved a misdemeanor battery, conduct for which they cannot arrest a person unless it occurred in the officers' presence. Plaintiffs Ex. 4, Deposition of Michael Thomas, pp. 23-25:5; Ellis's Audiorecording at approximately 9:20-10:25. Ellis told both parties that a report would be written up and that they could contact the District Attorney if they wanted to pursue charges. Plaintiff was undecided. Mrs. Stone wanted to pursue charges, and Mr. Stone demanded the presence of a supervisor. Plaintiffs Response, Doc. 101, p. 4, ¶ 12 (citing Ellis's Audiorecording at 9:24).

         Officer Ellis called his office on his car radio to let them know people might be calling because there were several people upset that they were not arresting Plaintiff. Plaintiff asserts Ellis spoke at this time to his supervisor (Sergeant Timothy McEachern) and that McEachern advised Ellis they were attempting to find a way to get Craft off the street.[7] Officer Ellis later testified in his deposition that Sergeant McEachern told him that "Chad Wright had said we needed to find a reason to arrest him." Ellis Deposition, pp. 15:17-16:24.[8]

         After watching Plaintiffs recording in his deposition, McEachern testified that the individual who should have been arrested was Mrs. Stone, not Craft. Plaintiffs Ex. 3, Deposition of Timothy McEachern, pp. 41:20-42:8. McEachern further testified that the altercation between Plaintiff and Mrs. Stone would be considered a misdemeanor battery and therefore no arrest should have been made, and there was no reason to take or go into Craft's phone. Id., p. 44:5-15. In the years Officer Ellis was with the Hobbs Police Department, he had never seen an individual get arrested for a misdemeanor battery that occurred outside of an officer's presence. Ellis Deposition, pp. 23:25-24:3.

         C. Detective White's Investigation

         On April 19, 2015, the day after the altercation, Officer Ellis's supervisor, Walter Coburn, removed him from the case and advised him he was to not contact any witnesses or victims in the case. Ellis Deposition, p. 62:18-24. That same day, Coburn assigned Defendant White to the case. Warrant and Criminal Complaint, p. 5; Defendants' Ex. 6, Deposition of Ahmaad White, pp. 25:11-26:3. White knew Officer Ellis had responded to the call, but did not know until his deposition that Officer Thomas had also been there and completed an incident report. Id. at pp. 60:21-61:1.

         On April 19, White contacted Israel Loya-Lopez at his house and interviewed him about the incident. Warrant and Criminal Complaint, p. 6. Mr. Loya-Lopez reported that Plaintiff pushed Mrs. Stone with the force that he would use to push a 300-pound man. Warrant and Criminal Complaint, p. 6; Defendants' Ex. 7, Detective White's Audiorecording of Interview of Israel Loya-Lopez.

         White then went to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Stone. Warrant and Criminal Complaint, p. 6. Mrs. Stone told White that she waved her lighter in front of Plaintiffs camera, he pushed her, and she hit her head. White's Audiorecording with the Stones. Warrant and Criminal Complaint, p. 7. Mrs. Stone said she was still in pain. On White's leading questions of whether she was incapacitated, unable to move around, to perform her daily duties, or sit up without assistance, Mrs. Stone agreed with all of those statements. White's Audiorecording with the Stones. White took photos of bruises on Mrs. Stone's right arm and a bump on the back of her head. Defendants' Ex. 8 (photos).

         The only address for Plaintiff that Officer Ellis obtained was the Houston address on Plaintiffs driver's license. Incident Report, p. 1. As such, White did not know Plaintiffs address in Hobbs prior to arresting him. However, Officer Ellis did obtain a telephone number from Plaintiff. Id. White did not try to contact Plaintiff before arresting him. White Deposition, pp. 39:10-40:15.

         D. Warrant Application, Arrest and Subsequent Prosecution

         After interviewing Mr. Loya-Lopez and the Stones, Defendant White conferred with the District Attorney, who agreed that Plaintiff should be charged with misdemeanor battery and disorderly conduct. Criminal Complaint, p. 7.

         A few days later, on April 23rd, Mr. Stone contacted Defendant White to report that Mrs. Stone's pain was increasing, she was acting verbally aggressive, she was confused and experiencing mood swings. Criminal Complaint, p. 7. This conversation is not in the record, other than White's summary of it in the Criminal Complaint. According to White's summary in the Criminal Complaint, Mr. Stone reported that he took Mrs. Stone back to the hospital where a doctor diagnosed Mrs. Stone as having sustained a severe concussion. Id., p. 8. In his response brief, Plaintiff did not dispute that Mr. Stone made these assertions to White, so the Court takes it as undisputed that Mr. Stone made them.

         Upon receiving this news, White contacted the DA again. They agreed Plaintiff should be charged with felony aggravated battery and disorderly conduct, a petty misdemeanor. Criminal Complaint, p. 8. White then filed the Criminal Complaint dated April 23, 2015. The state court order dismissing the charges recites that the state filed charges on April 23, 2015. Defendants' Ex. 9, p. 1.

         For purposes other than the summary judgment motion, White contends his affidavit accurately conveys what Mrs. Stone, Mr. Stone and Mr. Loya-Lopez reported to either him or Ellis. Plaintiff contends to the contrary, White fabricated numerous assertions in his Criminal Complaint affidavit, particularly in claiming Plaintiffs preaching included offensive comments and language, and that White knowingly or recklessly did not attempt to view the Plaintiffs Video before filing the complaint requesting an arrest warrant. A state court magistrate judge for Lea County, the Honorable Willie Henry, approved the warrant application on April 23, 2015. Warrant and Criminal Complaint generally, and p.1.

         Two days later (Saturday, April 25, 2015), Plaintiff went to the same location to preach again. Upon setting up his tripod, he was immediately detained by White with several other Hobbs police officers in the area as well. They transported Plaintiff to the local city jail, where he was detained for between four and five days, and he was later transferred to the Lea County Detention Center where he apparently remained for fourteen or fifteen days. Craft Deposition, pp. 198:6-200:7. He was charged with third-degree felony aggravated battery and disorderly conduct (a petty misdemeanor), initially required to post a cash bond of $11, 000, and asserts he spent 19 days in jail. Doc. 101, p. 6, ¶ 24. According to Plaintiff, this was the first time he had ever been arrested or charged with a crime. Craft Deposition, pp. 200:21 -201:1.

         On December 13, 2016, the state court dismissed the charges against Plaintiff because the prosecution failed to comply with New Mexico's speedy trial requirements. Defendants' Ex. 9, State Court Order granting Craft's motion to dismiss. The state court found:

This is a simple case in which a delay of longer than 12 months is presumptively prejudicial which triggers the Barker v. Wingo [407 U.S. 514 (1972)] factors. The State did not respond to Defendant's motion to dismiss. The length of the delay from Defendant's arraignment to his scheduled trial was 20 months, 14 months of which were attributable to the State, 6 months to Defendant. (See Defendant's Motion attributing delay which was not contested by the State) The reasons for the delay weigh moderately against the State. The delays were not deliberate, but administrative or neutral. Defendant asserted his right to speedy trial in May of 2015 and also when the State requested two ... • continuances.

Id., ¶¶ 8-12 (paragraph breaks omitted). Four months later, Plaintiff brought this action.

         II. Summary Judgment Standards

         The Court shall grant a motion for 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). This standard requires more than the "mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). Rather, it requires "there be no genuine issue of material fact." Id. A material fact is one that "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Id. at 248. "Summary judgment is inappropriate where there is a genuine dispute over a material fact, 'that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'" Roberts v. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Corp., 884 F.3d 967, 972 (10th Cir. 2018) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248).

         On a motion for summary judgment, "'we examine the record and all reasonable inferences that might be drawn from it in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, without making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence.'" Roberts, 884 F.3d at 971, n. 3. Initially, the moving party carries the burden of proving the nonexistence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Am. Mech'l Solutions, L.L.C. v. Northland Process Piping, Inc., 184 F.Supp.3d 1030, 1052 (D.N.M. 2016). The moving party satisfies this burden by "either (1) offering affirmative evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim, or (2) demonstrating that the nonmoving party's evidence is insufficient to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim." Id.; see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A)-(B). Once the burden is satisfied, "the nonmoving party must support its contention that a genuine dispute of material fact exists either by (1) citing to particular materials in the record, or (2) showing that the materials cited by the moving party do not establish the absence of a genuine dispute." Tolman, 108 F.Supp.3d at 1162- 63 (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus, v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986)).

There are, however, limited circumstances in which the court may disregard a party's version of the facts. This doctrine developed most robustly in the qualified immunity arena. In Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 ... (2007), the Supreme Court concluded that summary judgment was appropriate where video evidence "quite clearly contradicted" the plaintiffs version of the facts.

American Mechanical, 184 F.Supp.3d at 1055 (quoting Scott, 550 U.S. at 378-81). "When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record [such as a video recording], so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment." Scott, 550 U.S. at 380-81.

         III. Plaintiff's Individual Capacity Claims

         A. Qualified Immunity

         "Qualified immunity attaches when an official's conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." City of Escondido v. Emmons, 139 S.Ct. 500, 503, 202 L.Ed.2d 455 (2019) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted). The U.S. Supreme Court "has repeatedly told courts ... not to define clearly established law at a high level of generality." Id.

The qualified immunity rule seeks a proper balance between two competing interests. On one hand, damages suits may offer the only realistic avenue for vindication of constitutional guarantees. On the other hand, permitting damages suits against government officials can entail substantial social costs, including the risk that fear of personal monetary liability and harassing litigation will unduly inhibit officials in the discharge of their duties. As one means to accommodate these two objectives, the Court has held that Government officials are entitled to qualified immunity with respect to discretionary functions performed in their ...

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