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Wilson v. Leeper

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

June 13, 2019

RYAN DEXTER WILSON, Plaintiff,
v.
BILL LEEPER, in his official capacity as Sheriff of the Nassau County Sheriff's Office, a Law Enforcement Agency of the State of Florida, Defendant.

          ORDER

          MARCIA MORALES UNITED SLATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS CAUSE is before the Court on the Defendant's Dispositive Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 24, Motion). On July 3, 2017, Plaintiff, Ryan Dexter Wilson, filed an Amended Complaint against Defendant, Bill Leeper, in his official capacity as Sheriff of the Nassau County Sheriff's Office, alleging federal and state claims arising out of Wilson's arrest and detention for arson and burglary. See Doc. 5 (Amended Complaint), filed July 3, 2017. After completing discovery, on October 3, 2018, Leeper filed this Motion.[1] In response to the Motion, on November 15, 2018, Wilson filed his Amended Memoranda of Law Opposing Defendant Bill Leeper's Motion for Summary Judgment. See Doc. 40 (Amended Response).[2] Accordingly, the matter is ripe for review.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under Rule 56, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Rule(s)), “[t]he court shall 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.” Rule 56(a). The record to be considered on a motion for summary judgment may include “depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Rule 56(c)(1)(A).[3] An issue is genuine when the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in favor of the nonmovant. Mize v. Jefferson City Bd. of Educ., 93 F.3d 739, 742 (11th Cir. 1996) (quoting Hairston v. Gainesville Sun Publ'g Co., 9 F.3d 913, 919 (11th Cir. 1993)). “[A] mere scintilla of evidence in support of the non-moving party's position is insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment.” Kesinger ex rel. Estate of Kesinger v. Herrington, 381 F.3d 1243, 1247 (11th Cir. 2004) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986)).

         The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating to the court, by reference to the record, that there are no genuine issues of material fact to be determined at trial. See Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991). “When a moving party has discharged its burden, the non-moving party must then go beyond the pleadings, and by its own affidavits, or by depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Jeffery v. Sarasota White Sox, Inc., 64 F.3d 590, 593-94 (11th Cir. 1995) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Substantive law determines the materiality of facts, and “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, a court “must view all evidence and make all reasonable inferences in favor of the party opposing summary judgment.” Haves v. City of Miami, 52 F.3d 918, 921 (11th Cir. 1995) (citing Dibrell Bros. Int'l, S.A. v. Banca Nazionale Del Lavoro, 38 F.3d 1571, 1578 (11th Cir. 1994)).

         II. BACKGROUND[4]

         On July 31, 2013, Wilson was arrested by members of the Nassau County Sheriff's Office and charged with three counts of second degree arson and two counts of burglary of a structure or conveyance. See Bass Affidavit at 20-21; Arson and Burglary Information at 1.[5] After appearing in state court, Wilson was detained on a bond of $35, 000, see First Appearance Hearing Notice at 1, [6] and went to trial on these charges in May of 2014. See Bass Deposition at 79. A jury acquitted him of all charges. Id. at 80. Wilson subsequently brought the instant action against Leeper, in his official capacity as Sheriff of the Nassau County Sheriff's Office, alleging federal and state law claims arising from his unlawful arrest and detention. See Amended Complaint. The events leading up to Wilson's lawsuit against Leeper are set forth below:

         During the Spring of 2013, a series of automobile arsons occurred at the Eastwood Oaks Apartment Complex (Eastwood Oaks), located in Hilliard, Florida.[7] There were at least three different arson incidents at the apartment complex over a one month period, resulting in fire damage to at least nine vehicles, as well as other arsons and burglaries in the surrounding area during that same time frame. See Investigative Summary at 2, 3-4, 5. Joshua Bass, a Property Crimes Detective for the Nassau County Sheriff's Office, investigated the arsons and associated burglaries. See Bass Deposition at 27, 29, 30.

         In particular, on April 25, Bass was called to Eastwood Oaks to investigate the arson of three different vehicles. See Investigative Summary at 3. Then on April 29, another five vehicles suffered fire damage. Id. at 3-4. Finally, on May 28, another two vehicles were set on fire, along with some of the stairs at the apartment complex. Id. at 4.

         Throughout his investigation, Bass and his associates were unable to gather any physical or DNA evidence from the crime scenes, and did not discover any evidence specifically indicating how the car fires were started. See Bass Deposition at 33, 35-36. Bass also was unable to identify any eye-witnesses to the arsons. Id. at 36-37. However, Bass did receive numerous tips from Eastwood Oaks residents and others relating to the arsons and suggesting potential suspects for the crimes. See Bass Investigative Summary at 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9-10. Bass investigated these tips and interviewed any number of individuals, including several potential suspects. Id. Nevertheless, after investigation, most of the reported tips did not result in Bass identifying the individual responsible for the arsons. Id.

         Concerned about the ongoing arson threat to its community, Eastwood Oaks management donated $5, 000 to the local Crime Stoppers organization in an effort to encourage individuals who might have information regarding the arsons to share that information with authorities. See Bass Deposition at 40, 58. Likewise, Crime Stoppers, a “private organization that offers reward money for tips leading to the arrest of criminal suspects, ” id. at 39, offered a reward of up to $1, 000 for any tips related to the arson. Id. at 40. Finally, the Florida Advisory Counsel on Arson Prevention also contributed an additional $5, 000 to help further the investigation. Id. at 58. Therefore, there existed a total reward of up to $11, 000 for information about the fires at Eastwood Oaks. Bass testified that “[r]ewards for tips leading to an arrest are occasionally offered through private organizations such as Crime Stoppers or the Florida Advisory Council on Arson Prevention. [However, to] the best of my knowledge, these organizations do not receive funding from the Nassau County Sherriff's [sic] Office.” Bass Affidavit at ¶ 27. Moreover, Bass stated that while Crime Stoppers worked “hand in hand with law enforcement across the state to provide tips, ” Bass Deposition at 39-40, including tips to the Nassau County Sheriff's Office, it was not his understanding that the Nassau County Sheriff's Office “offer[ed] rewards for information or tips that [might] lead to an arrest, prosecution, and conviction of a suspect.” Id. at 40.

         Similarly, Greg Foster, supervising Captain of the Nassau County Sheriff's Office Administrative Services Division, testified “[w]hile certain private organizations such as Crime Stoppers or the Arson Tip Hotline may pass information onto law enforcement agencies, such as the Nassau County Sheriff's Office, the Nassau County Sheriff's Office has no control over those private organizations.” Foster Affidavit at ¶ 9. Likewise, he confirmed that the Nassau County Sheriff's Office does not provide any funding to those organizations. Id. at ¶ 8. Foster nonetheless acknowledged that the Nassau County Sheriff's Office does maintain an Investigative Funds Policy to help further narcotics investigations. Id. at ¶ 5-6. The policy allows investigating officers to use funds to cover the costs for narcotics purchases, as well as to encourage otherwise reluctant confidential informants to provide investigators with information. Id. at 4-8. However, Foster testified that the fund was only used to further narcotics investigations, and not arson investigations. Id. at ¶ 6. Moreover, Foster stated that the “Nassau County Sheriff's Office did not offer money for information about the investigation in the Eastwood Oaks Apartment Complex Arsons.” Id. at ¶ 7. Finally, Foster explained that it was “not a custom of [sic] practice of the Nassau County Sheriff's Office to provide witnesses with the contact information of private organizations who may provide financial rewards to individuals with information about unsolved crimes.” Id. at ¶ 10.

         On June 18, Bass received a phone call from Wendy Goodman, a resident of Eastwood Oaks, reporting that her boyfriend, Wilson, “had told her that he set the first set of vehicle fires at the apartments.” Bass Investigative Summary at 7. Goodman further informed Bass that Wilson told her that he used a bag of potato chips to ignite the first vehicle. She also reported that one of the arson victims, Susan Gibson, had been in a traffic accident with Wilson in the prior year, for which Wilson was found at fault. Goodman reported to Bass that Wilson “was upset by this and had a problem with that victim.” Id. See also Bass Affidavit at ¶ 11; id. at 21; Bass Deposition at 47, 50.

         Wilson and Goodman grew up in the same town and were childhood friends. See Wilson Deposition, Doc. 36-1 at 14, 15. As youths, they had an “on and off” dating relationship, but eventually went their separate ways. Id. at 15-16. Later in their adulthood, Wilson and Goodman reconnected and were a couple. Id. at 16. However, Wilson indicated that Goodman became easily jealous when Wilson spent time with his children, and was jealous of the positive co-parenting relationships he had with the mothers of his children. Id. at 17. In 2011, Goodman accused Wilson of some form of domestic violence, although Wilson denied that he ever hit Goodman or had an altercation with her. See Wilson Deposition, Doc. 36-2 at 14-15. According to Wilson “nothing further” came from Goodman's 2011 allegation of domestic violence against him. Id. at 15-17. Eventually, based on Goodman's escalating jealousy, Wilson sought to end their relationship, in part by changing his phone number and refusing to communicate with her. See Wilson Deposition, Doc. 36-1 at 17-18.

         It is not clear from the record before the Court when Wilson ended his relationship with Goodman. In Goodman's interactions with the Nassau County Sheriff's Office, she once fleetingly referred to herself as an “ex-girlfriend.” See Goodman Audio Interview. However, in Bass' Investigative Summary and Affidavit, where the detective details his interactions with Goodman, he records Goodman referring to Wilson as her “boyfriend.” See Bass Investigative Summary at 7; Bass Affidavit at ¶ 11. In his deposition, Bass refers to Goodman and Wilson as no longer being a couple at the time of the fires. See Bass Deposition at 54-55. Wilson was also unable to remember exactly when he ended his relationship with Goodman. See Wilson Deposition, Doc. 36-1 at 18. Nonetheless, Wilson believed that Goodman falsely reported to Bass that Wilson started the fires because she was angry he had ended their relationship, rather than for any potential financial reward. See Wilson Deposition, Doc. 36-2 at 25, 26-27.

         On June 19, 2013, the day following Goodman's initial phone call to Bass, the detective went to Eastwood Oaks to interview her in person. See Bass Investigative Summary at 7; Bass Affidavit at ¶ 13; Bass Deposition at 48. During his recorded interview with Goodman, Goodman reiterated much of what she related to Bass on the phone. Goodman stated that about four to five days after the first fire, Wilson told her he had set the fires by lighting a potato chip bag and placing it under Gibson's vehicle. Goodman said that right before the fire, Wilson and Gibson had an altercation, that Wilson was angry and hated Gibson, and that he wanted to bash her car with a bat. Goodman further reported that she had stayed with Wilson the night of the second set of arsons. She said that she woke up in the middle of the night and Wilson was not in the apartment. When she awoke later, he was back in the apartment and she saw him looking out the window at the fires. See Goodman Audio Interview.

         Goodman said that when she heard from neighbors that other individuals were being identified as potential suspects for the arsons, she had to come forward because the “right people needed to be brought to justice, ” but that she was not fulfilling any type of vendetta. Id. Goodman also told Bass that Wilson was upset about recently losing his job, and that he had suffered a significant workplace injury for which he was expecting a workers' compensation payment. She reported that he had changed since the injury and “acted kind of crazy.” Bass Investigative Summary at 7. She warned Bass that he needed to “move fast” against Wilson because as soon as Wilson received his workers' compensation payment, Wilson was planning to leave town. See Goodman Audio Interview. She also noted that Wilson had already changed his phone number. Id.

         Finally, Goodman advised Bass that she had initially attempted to contact Crime Stoppers, but because she was on hold for so long, she called the Nassau County Sheriff's Office directly. Bass advised Goodman that she should call back because Crime Stoppers only pays rewards to individuals who provide tips directly to the organization. Bass also gave Goodman a copy of his card, which included the phone number of the Florida Arson Tip Line on the back, and believes he gave Goodman a separate card from Crime Stoppers. See Bass Deposition at 48-49.

         After his interview with Goodman, Bass returned to Eastwood Oaks on two different occasions in an attempt to locate and talk to Wilson. See Bass Investigative Summary at 8; Bass Affidavit at ¶ 19. On both instances, Wilson was not at home, but Bass left his business card tucked in Wilson's door. See Wilson Deposition, Doc. 36-2 at 28; id. Doc. 36-4 at 10, 13. All the while, Bass continued his investigation of the arsons at Eastwood Oaks, interviewing residents and following up on other tips. See generally Bass Investigative Summary.

         On July 11, 2013, after finding Bass' business card tucked into his front door, and hearing from his neighbors that he was a potential suspect for the arsons, Wilson went to the Nassau County Sheriff's Office to talk to Bass. See Wilson Deposition, Doc. 36-4 at 10. Wilson stated several times throughout his conversation with Bass that he was hurt and angry to hear from several people that he was a suspect of the arsons. Therefore, he came to the Sheriff's Office to clear his name. Additionally, several times in his interview Wilson emphatically denied that he set the fires. See generally Wilson Audio Interview.

         During the interview, Wilson noted that he had suffered a work injury and was expecting a workers' compensation payment. He told Bass that he was going to use the payment to help pay off his outstanding rent, and then had plans to move elsewhere. He also acknowledged that, on the night of the second set of fires, the light and noise from the fires woke him, and he walked out of his apartment to see what was happening. Wilson confirmed that Goodman was with him that night, and Wilson suggested that at that point in time, they were still a couple. Id.

         Throughout the interview with Bass, Wilson brought up the subject of his car accident with Gibson. On other occasions, Bass raised the subject. Regardless, Wilson repeatedly denied that he had anything to do with the arson of Gibson's car, but also suspected that Gibson was accusing him of the fires. He acknowledged that just prior to the fires, he had completed paying restitution to Gibson for the damage caused to her car from their accident. He noted that the accident had cost him a great deal of money, and that he did not believe he should have been held at fault. He suggested that the officer who responded to the crash was biased in Gibson's favor, complained that Gibson had improperly moved her car before the police arrived at the scene, and even suggested that perhaps she was drunk at the time of the accident. Wilson said he was willing to go back before a judge under oath to clarify what happened. Nonetheless, Wilson emphasized that he had not had any recent interactions with Gibson. Id.

         During the interview, Wilson agreed to return to the Sheriff's Office and undergo a Computer Voice Stress Analyzer (C.V.S.A.) test. However, the next day an attorney on behalf of Wilson called Bass to say that Wilson would not take the test if it was administered by a law enforcement officer, fearing bias on the part of the officers. See Bass Investigative Summary at 8. The attorney stated that Wilson would nonetheless be willing to “take a polygraph or C.V.S.A administered by an impartial civilian with the sheriff's office bearing the cost.” Id. See also Bass Affidavit at ¶ 21.

         Based on the information Wilson provided to Bass during their interview, along with Bass' own further investigation, the detective was able to confirm several aspects of Goodman's earlier statements regarding Wilson. These facts included that Wilson and Gibson had a traffic collision in which the police determined Wilson to be at fault, but that Wilson continued to insist otherwise. Based on Bass' additional search of Nassau County court records, he was able to verify the accident between Wilson and Gibson; that Wilson was found at fault; that Wilson was placed on probation; and that he was ordered to pay restitution. See Car Accident Judgment; Car Accident Termination of Probation. Additionally, during his interview with Bass, Wilson confirmed that he was present at Eastwood Oaks on the second night of the arsons, and that Goodman was with him that night. Moreover, Wilson confirmed he had suffered an on-the-job injury, was awaiting a workers' compensation payment, and that upon receiving the payment, he intended pay his back rent and then leave the area. Bass also interviewed management officials for Eastwood Oaks who confirmed that Wilson had fallen behind in his rent, had been at risk of being evicted, and had been very stressed lately, sometimes yelling and acting out. See Bass Investigative Summary at 7, 9. Another apartment management representative confirmed that management was working with Wilson to address his debt, and that Wilson had signed a promissory note giving the apartment complex $3, 000 of his expected workers' compensation recovery for back rent. Id.

         In a follow-up phone call with Goodman on July 15, 2013 - a few days after Bass interviewed Wilson - Goodman informed Bass that Wilson contacted her and said “he had been shown the statement against him. She further advised he told her that he had lied before and that he did not start the fires.” Bass Investigative Report at 8-9. Goodman again confirmed her original statements to Bass and said “that she was willing to testify in trial against him.” Id. at 9.

         In light of the evidence he had gathered thus far, Bass and his investigative colleagues met with Assistant State Attorney Stephen Seigel to review the case. Id. at 9. Seigel requested that Bass contact Goodman and inquire as to whether she would be willing to provide a sworn statement. Id. Goodman agreed to do so, and she met with Bass and Seigel on July 19, 2013, at the Sheriff's Office.

         In this second interview, Seigel questioned Goodman under oath, see Bass Deposition at 64, and she consistently reiterated what she had already shared with Bass in her initial telephone call as well as her first recorded interview. Goodman stated Wilson told her that he set fire to Gibson's car and used a potato chip bag to start the fire. “She further advised Mr. Wilson told her he had set additional fires to throw people off from the first vehicle.” Bass Investigative Summary at 9; Bass Affidavit at ¶ 22. She confirmed that on the night of the second set of arsons she

awoke during the night to use the restroom and Mr. Wilson was not present in the apartment. She stated she went back to bed and later awoke again due to the fires outside the building. She advised that at that time Mr. Wilson was standing in his living room looking out at the fires.

         Bass Investigative Summary at 9. See also Bass Affidavit at ¶ 21.

         After meeting with Goodman, State Attorney Seigel reported to Bass that while he believed there was probable cause to arrest Wilson, “he wanted more information before signing an arrest warrant.” Bass Affidavit at ¶ 23. See also Bass Investigative Summary at 9. Despite this, on July 31, 2013, without a warrant, Bass, along with at least five other law enforcement officers, arrested Wilson at his apartment. Id. at 10; Bass Affidavit at ¶ 24. At his initial appearance, the court ordered Wilson be held on a $35, 000 bond, see First Appearance Hearing Notice at 1, and he subsequently proceeded to a jury trial on the charges stemming from the arsons which occurred on April 25, which included the arson of Gibson's vehicle. See Arson and Burglary Information at 1; Bass Deposition at 79.

         A jury acquitted Wilson of all the charges against him. Bass Deposition at 80. From the time of his arrest through his acquittal by the jury, Wilson was held in custody for nearly ten months. During this time, “no more arson [sic] occurred at the Eastwood Oaks Apartment Complex.” Bass Affidavit at ¶ 25. After his acquittal, Wilson filed the instant action against Leeper, in is official capacity as Sheriff of the Nassau County Sheriff's Office, alleging violations of both federal and state law.

         In a deposition given in this case, according to Wilson, during his criminal trial, Goodman testified that Bass met her at a local Wal-Mart parking lot and gave her $5, 000. See Wilson Deposition, Doc. 36-3 at 3-4, 24. Bass has denied having engaged in any such transaction with Goodman. See Bass Deposition at 68-69. Wilson also testified that while he was in jail awaiting trial, he received at least two postcards from Goodman stating “you must be punished for your wrongdoings, you are a perpetrator and a manipulator, compulsive and pathological liar, ” and “you need Jesus, tell the truth.” Wilson Deposition, Doc. 36-3 at 8, 10-11. Wilson reported that neighbors told him that because he had ended his relationship with Goodman, “she [said] she [was] going to ...


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