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McCulley v. Jones

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division

November 22, 2017

DETECTIVE JEFFREY JONES (PCSO), individually, and GRADY JUDD, in his official capacity as Sheriff of the Polk County Sheriff's Office, Defendants.



         BEFORE THE COURT is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Complaint (Dkt. 9), and Plaintiff's Response in Opposition with Exhibit A attached (Dkt. 16). After careful consideration of the allegations of the Complaint (Dkt. 1), the amended arrest warrants attached to the motion (Dkt. 9-1), and the applicable law, the Court concludes the motion is due to be granted as to the federal claims.


         The circumstances giving rise to the arrests of the three Plaintiffs involved the theft of approximately 80 citrus hauling trailers valued at between $5, 000 and $10, 000.[1]Three other individuals, including Donald Mosley, were identified in the actual theft of the trailers.[2] Mr. Mosley admitted in his post-Miranda statement that some of the trailers were sold to T&M Salvage (T&M), a licensed secondary metals recycler owned by Plaintiff Adalina McCulley.[3] Plaintiff John Richmond was the scale operator of T&M, and Plaintiff Clarence McCulley was the manager of American Salvage and Trading, a business that shared office space with T&M.[4]

         At T&M, Mr. Mosley dealt only with Bernhard Powell, who was the buyer of materials there.[5] When Mr. Mosley was asked for paperwork, he responded that he bought the trailers from individuals who did not have titles for the trailers.[6] According to Plaintiffs, the stolen trailers were “barely in working order” and were “missing multiple tires.”[7] Nevertheless, when the Polk County Sheriff's Office asked for the records of T&M, all Plaintiffs cooperated and also gave statements to Defendant Detective Jones.[8]

         With respect to Mr. Richmond, there was allegedly no evidence that Mr. Richmond made management decisions for T&M.[9] The complaint even alleges that the “evidence suggests and the discovery is expected to show that Mr. Richmond was charged to extract favorable testimony from him against the McCulley's.”[10] Although not expressly alleged in the complaint, Plaintiffs contend that none of the individuals at the other two scrap yards to which Mr. Mosely sold the trailers were ever arrested.[11] Out of the 80 trailers stolen, Plaintiffs were charged with acquiring 40 of them.[12] Each Plaintiff and Mr. Powell were charged with 40 counts of unlawful purchase of a motor vehicle, 40 counts of grand theft of motor vehicle, and 40 counts of dealing in stolen property.[13] The grand theft charges against the Plaintiffs were dropped, and six of the remaining 80 counts were dropped.[14] Mrs. McCulley was found not guilty at her jury trial.[15]Eventually all the charges were dropped against Mr. Richmond and Mr. Powell.[16] Mr. McCulley pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of transferring a trailer without delivering a certified title.[17]


         Detective Jones reviewed the records of T&M which contained photographs of the transactions. The records did not contain certificates of title, salvage certificates, certificates of destruction, or derelict vehicle certificate applications from the sellers of the trailers.[18] The records showed that T&M classified the trailers as “unprepared steel.” Each Plaintiff and Mr. Powell stated that they bought the trailers as scrap metal and did not obtain any paperwork or titles nor did they obtain a derelict motor vehicle certificate application from the sellers. Detective Jones further noted that the Plaintiffs and Mr. Powell cut the trailers up into scrap metal and resold the metal to other secondary metals recyclers to eliminate the possibility of inspecting the trailers for identifying numbers or markings. Each arrest affidavit has a dated signature of the assistant state attorney in the economic crimes division. The Defendants urge this Court to dismiss the complaint because each Plaintiff was arrested pursuant to a valid arrest warrant and there was probable cause for the arrests. Detective Jones argues that the § 1983 claim should be dismissed based on qualified immunity because there was no constitutional violation and there was arguable probable cause for the arrests.


         Allegations of the Complaint

         The complaint must allege “enough” facts, accepted as true and construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009); Bell Alt. Corp v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964-65, 1974, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). “While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitlement to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. at 1964-65 (internal citations omitted). Legal conclusions “couched” as facts need not be accepted as true. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. The conclusory legal allegations must first be separated out, and then “the remaining well-pleaded factual allegations” may be accepted as true and determined whether they state a plausible entitlement to relief. Franklin v. Curry, 738 F.3d 1246, 1251 (11th Cir. 2013). Determining whether the claim is plausible is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679, 129 S.Ct. at 1950.[19] The factual allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         Generally, only the four corners of the complaint may be considered in ruling on a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Cline v. Tolliver, 434 F. App'x 823, 824 (11th Cir. 2011) (unpublished opinion) (citing Speaker v. U.S. Dep't of Health and Human Servs. Ctrs. for Disease Control and Prevention, 623 F.3d 1371, 1379 (11th Cir. 2010)). The court may consider exhibits if referenced in the complaint and attached to the defendant's motion to dismiss. Brooks v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Fla., Inc., 116 F.3d 1364, 1369 (11th Cir. 1997). The court may “consider an extrinsic document if it is (1) central to the plaintiff's claim, and (2) its authenticity is not challenged.” SFM Holdings, Ltd. v. Banc of Am. Secs., LLC, 600 F.3d 1334, 1337 (11th Cir. 2010). The Rule 12(b) motion need not be converted into a Rule 56 summary judgment motion “where certain documents and their contents are undisputed.” Speaker, 623 F.3d at 1379.

         Qualified Immunity

         The qualified immunity inquiry is intertwined with the Rule 12(b)(6) standard at the dismissal stage. Keating v. City of Miami, 598 F.3d 753, 760 (11th Cir. 2010). Qualified immunity shields government officials from individual liability as long as the acts were committed within their discretionary authority “unless the official's conduct violates clearly established [federal] statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Id., 598 F.3d at 762 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).[20] An arrest falls within the officer's discretionary function and requires only “arguable probable cause” to fulfill the clearly-established element. Case v. Eslinger, 555 F.3d 1317, 1327 (11th Cir. 2009) (citing Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1195 (11th Cir. 2002)). “Arguable probable cause exists ‘where reasonable officers in the same circumstances and possessing the same knowledge as the Defendant could have believed that probable cause existed to arrest.'” Case, 555 F.3d at 1327 (citation omitted).

         After establishing that the public official was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority, then the plaintiff must show that the official violated a constitutional right and the right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. Fish v. Brown, 838 F.3d 1153, 1162 (11th Cir. 2016) (citations omitted). It does not matter which factor is considered first. Fish, 838 F.3d at 1162 (citing Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 2009)).


         Plaintiffs alleges three separate counts as to each Plaintiff for false arrest pursuant to § 1983. Plaintiffs specifically allege that the Plaintiffs were unlawfully arrested when Detective Jones “caused and authorized” their detention “when he submitted an arrest affidavit . . . and applied for an arrest warrant, which led to [the] arrest” of Plaintiffs.[21]

         Plaintiffs allege the arrest was without arguable probable cause.[22] According to Plaintiffs, the facts and circumstances within Detective Jones' knowledge “would not cause a prudent person to believe” that Plaintiffs had committed an offense.[23] “[B]ased on the condition of the trailers and ambiguity of the law no criminal intent to violate the law could have been perceived by a reasonable officer” in the same circumstances and possessing the same knowledge as Detective Jones.[24]

         Although not addressed by either party, the § 1983 count is labeled false arrest and not malicious prosecution. Plaintiffs were arrested pursuant to arrest warrants and therefore, even if the arrest warrants were invalid, their claim is one of malicious prosecution. Carter v. Gore, 557 F.App'x 904, 906 (11th Cir. 2014) (citing Whiting v. Traylor, 85 F.3d 581, 585 (11th Cir. 1996)).[25] Although the complaint does not use the term “maliciously prosecuted” as it did in Carter, it alleges that Detective Jones caused the arrest warrants to be issued without arguable probable cause. “[A]n officer's liability for malicious prosecution flows from initially securing an invalid warrant . . . .” Carter, 557 F.App'x at 907. The complaint therefore technically alleges a § 1983 malicious prosecution claim, which must be decided on the existence of arguable probable cause Detective Jones raises the affirmative defense of qualified immunity in the motion to dismiss. The arrests occurred within the scope of his discretionary authority as a deputy with the sheriff's office investigating the crimes associated with the citrus trailer thefts. Plaintiffs admit there is no dispute that Detective Jones was acting within his discretionary authority when he arrested Plaintiffs.[26] The burden now rests with the Plaintiffs to show that Detective Jones violated a constitutional right and that the constitutional right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation, in either order. Fish, 838 F.3d at 1162 ...

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