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Gover v. Helder

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

August 31, 2016




         Currently before the Court is the Report and Recommendation ("R&R") (Doc. 70) of the Honorable Erin L. Setser, United States Magistrate Judge for the Western District of Arkansas, regarding Defendants Sheriff Tim Helder, Major R. Hoyt, Officer D. Melancon, and Officer T.J. Rennie's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 28) and Brief in Support (Doc. 29). Plaintiff Benny Matthew Gover submitted a Brief in Opposition to the Motion (Doc. 34). Following that, Judge Setser held a hearing on the Motion on June 7, 2016, and Mr. Gover gave testimony at that time. The R&R was filed on July 29, 2016, and Mr. Gover submitted Objections (Doc. 71) on August 11, 2016, as well as a document called "Plaintiffs Statement in Open Court" (Doc. 72), which the Court has treated as additional objections to the R&R. Then, on August 18, 2016, Mr. Gover filed a document entitled "Addendum: Appeal to Magistrate" (Doc. 73), which the Court has also treated as additional objections.

         The Court has performed a de novo review of the record on summary judgment, including the audio recording of the hearing conducted by Judge Setser, and the audio and video recordings that were presented as evidence during the hearing.[1] Accord Taylor v. Farrier, 910 F.2d 518, 521 (8th Cir. 1990) (finding that de novo review of a magistrate judge's evidentiary hearing requires district court to read full transcript or other verbatim record of proceedings). Based on its review of the record, the Court will ADOPT IN PART AND DECLINE TO ADOPT IN PART the R&R for the reasons explained herein.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Although the "Background" section of the R&R contains a fair and accurate recounting of the facts at issue, the Court will summarize or restate some of those facts below in order to provide context for the analysis to follow. Mr. Gover's lawsuit, brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, concerns his allegation that his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated as a result of a traffic stop that occurred on February 24, 2014. Mr. Gover believes the initial stop was unsupported by probable cause. He further contends that his detention was unlawfully extended in order for a K-9 unit to be summoned to the scene to perform a drug sniff around the exterior of his vehicle. He argues that there was no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity sufficient to justify the K-9 sniff.

         With respect to Defendants Helder and Hoyt, Mr. Gover maintains that they are personally liable under § 1983 as supervisors of Officers Melancon and Rennie, who conducted the traffic stop and K-9 sniff in question. In particular, Mr. Gover speculates that Sheriff Helder, along with Major Hoyt, directed Officer Melancon to initiate the traffic stop or otherwise approved of his actions during the stop, and also directed and/or approved of Defendant Rennie's actions in performing the K-9 sniff. Mr. Gover believes Sheriff Helder is personally involved in these events because he is biased against Mr. Gover as a result of a letter Mr. Gover sent him and all Arkansas sheriffs in 2013, which demanded, among other things, that they proceed to a website and swear an online oath to uphold the Constitution. See Doc. 30-4, pp. 8-9.

         Sheriff Helder revealed in the course of this litigation that he never responded to Mr. Gover's letter, but did forward it to the head of the local Joint Terrorism Task Force. See Doc. 30-5, p. 2. Armed with that knowledge, Mr. Gover now suspects that Sheriff Helder directed his subordinates to conduct surveillance on him and closely scrutinize his movements. Mr. Gover also claims that in the two weeks leading up to the traffic stop at issue, he saw significantly more police officers patrolling the streets of his community. From this, he gathers that Sheriff Helder and/or Major Hoyt must have ordered the County's traffic officers to keep a close watch on him. See Brief in Opposition to Summary Judgment, Doc. 34 ("[Sheriff Helder] sent my letter to the terrorist task force officer for follow up and action, to include my name on the terror watchlist for further harassment: later; I saw several deputies eyeing me, like never done before-I hardly ever saw them, and they never paid me any attention, until after the letter: this statement I make in full truth!" (emphasis in original)).

         Sheriff Helder submitted an affidavit in support of his request for summary judgment. (Doc. 30-5). In it, he explains that he was not personally involved in the traffic stop that is the subject of the Complaint. Id. at p. 1. He admits that he received Mr. Gover's letter to all Arkansas sheriffs in 2013, but maintains that his only response was to "forward[ ] the letter to Deputy Brian Comstock who is assigned to the local Joint Terrorism Task Force." Id. at p. 2. Sheriff Helder claims that he "had never met Mr. Gover and did not immediately associate him" with the 2013 letter at the time Mr. Gover contacted the Sheriffs office "in mid to late 2014" to follow up on the citizen complaint he filed about the traffic stop. Id. Mr. Gover met Sheriff Helder personally to discuss the traffic stop and his citizen complaint. Id. Otherwise, Sheriff Helder had no other contact with Mr. Gover and denies that he instructed his subordinates to watch, investigate, or stop Mr. Gover for no reason. Id.

         Major Hoyt's affidavit also confirms that he was not aware of Mr. Gover until after he filed the citizen complaint "in mid-2014." (Doc. 30-1, p. 1). He further states that he "was not aware of or involved in the traffic stop that occurred on February 24, 2014, which is the subject of this suit, at the time it occurred"; and he was not aware of "any directive from the Sheriff or any other person or agency suggesting that Mr. Gover should be watched, investigated, or stopped for no reason." Id. Finally, Major Hoyt avers that he "was not familiar with a letter allegedly sent to Sheriff Helder by Mr. Gover before the traffic stop at issue herein (estimated 2013) until Mr. Gover sent a purported copy to [him] in correspondence dated December 19, 2014." Id. at p. 2.

         As to the alleged liability of Officer Melancon, Mr. Gover maintains, first, that the officer lacked probable cause to initiate the traffic stop in the first place. Second, Mr. Gover asserts that Officer Melancon lacked reasonable suspicion to continue to detain him after the traffic-related investigation had concluded, and then summon a K-9 unit to perform a drug sniff. Mr. Gover also believes Officer Rennie, the K-9 officer who responded to Officer Melancon's request for assistance, violated Mr. Gover's constitutional rights by conducting the drug sniff without reasonable suspicion of illegal drug activity.

         During the traffic stop at issue, Officer Melancon pulled Mr. Gover over for having expired license plate tags. Although Mr. Gover questions how Officer Melancon could have possibly seen his tags prior to pulling him over, Mr. Gover does not dispute that his tags had, in fact, expired. Mr. Gover testified at the summary judgment hearing that Officer Melancon told him that he planned to give him a warning for the expired tags. However, shortly after Officer Melancon took Mr. Gover's driver's license and ran a search of his criminal history, he learned that the driver's license had been cancelled-as opposed to having been suspended or revoked. It appears that when Mr. Gover moved from Washington, D.C. to Northwest Arkansas the previous year, he had attempted to transfer his driver's license from one jurisdiction to the other, and the transfer did not take place properly. The confusion regarding Mr. Gover's driver's licence did not seem to concern Officer Melancon, however, as the traffic stop footage shows him reassuring Mr. Gover that he was "not worried about it that much." Officer Melancon also advised Mr. Gover that he would need to visit the state Revenue Office to take care of both his expired tags and his cancelled license.

         At some point during the traffic stop, Officer Melancon's background search of Mr. Gover's criminal history revealed that he had a prior conviction from 2011 for possession of marijuana. This prior conviction, by Officer Melancon's own admission, was a factor in his later determination that there was reasonable suspicion to detain Mr. Gover further and request a K-9 sniff of his vehicle. See Doc. 68-1, p. 2.

         The police dashboard camera that recorded the traffic stop reveals that Officer Melancon pulled Mr. Gover over at 10:33 a.m. At 10:47 a.m., after Officer Melancon ran a search on Mr. Gover's license and discovered his prior drug conviction, he asked Mr. Gover if he could search his car. Mr. Gover refused. At 10:49 a.m., Officer Melancon called for a K-9 unit to come to the scene, and Officer Rennie answered the call. Deputy Melancon's affidavit explains that he felt there was reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop and call a K-9 unit to the scene because: (1) Mr. Gover had a prior conviction for possession of marijuana; (2) Mr. Gover seemed "agitated and argumentative" while being questioned; (3) Mr. Gover demonstrated an "abrupt change in behavior" after Officer Melancon began asking about his driver's license; and (4) Mr. Gover showed visible signs of nervousness, including shaking hands and complaining of a dry mouth. Id. at p. 2.

         Officer Rennie and the K-9 unit arrived at 11:02 a.m. Officer Melancon states in his affidavit that while on the phone with Officer Rennie requesting his assistance, Officer Melancon "described [his] observations and the details of [his] reasonable suspicion. Id. at p. 2. Officer Melancon also claims that, while on the phone, Officer Rennie "[c]onfirm[ed] [Officer Melancon's] conclusion" that there was reasonable suspicion to conduct the K-9 sniff. Id. Then, after Officer Rennie arrived on the scene with the ...

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