326 F.3d 995 (8th Cir. 2003), 02-1915, Johnson v. Crooks

Docket Nº:02-1915
Citation:326 F.3d 995
Party Name:Linda Johnson; Reginald Johnson, Plaintiffs
Case Date:April 23, 2003
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

Page 995

326 F.3d 995 (8th Cir. 2003)

Linda Johnson; Reginald Johnson, Plaintiffs—Appellees,


Aaron Crooks, Defendant—Appellant.

No. 02-1915

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

April 23, 2003

Submitted: November 7, 2002

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska.

Page 996


Rick G. Wade, argued, Lincoin, NE, for appellant.

Robert Vail Broom, argued, Omaha, NE, for appellee.

Before WOLLMAN, LAY, and LOKEN,[*] Circuit Judges.

LOKEN, Circuit Judge.

This is an action by Linda and Reginald Johnson against Aaron Crooks, a deputy sheriff for Gage County, Nebraska. The Johnsons allege that Crooks stopped Ms. Johnson's car, not for a traffic violation, but because she is an African-American. They assert federal Fourth Amendment, equal protection, and due process claims and pendent claims under Nebraska state law. Crooks appeals the denial of his motion for partial summary judgment dismissing the federal claims on the basis of qualified immunity. In an interlocutory appeal challenging the denial of qualified immunity, we consider whether "[Crooks's] conduct which the District Court deemed sufficiently supported for purposes of summary judgment" violated clearly established statutory or constitutional standards of which a reasonable person would have known. Behrens v. Pelletier, 516 U.S. 299, 313 (1996); see Tlamka v. Serrell, 244 F.3d 628, 632 (8th Cir. 2001). Viewing the summary judgment record in the light most favorable to the Johnsons, who are the non-moving parties, we conclude that the federal claims must be dismissed and therefore reverse.

I. Background.

On April 18, 2000, Linda Johnson was driving through rural Nebraska to Fort Page 997

Riley, Kansas, where she lived with her husband, Army Sergeant Reginald Johnson. As she passed through the town of Beatrice at about 9:15 a.m., deputy sheriff Crooks pulled out from a parking lot and maneuvered his patrol car through traffic until it was directly behind Ms. Johnson's vehicle. After following closely for approximately eleven miles, during which Ms. Johnson avers she was careful not to commit any traffic violations, Crooks signaled her to stop and approached her car. Ms. Johnson asked why he pulled her over. Crooks responded, "because you were going left of center." Ms. Johnson denied crossing the center line and said that Crooks had targeted her because of her race and the type of car she was driving, a 1996 Lexus. Crooks told Ms. Johnson that race had nothing to do with the traffic stop. Rather, he was concerned about her safety. After returning to his patrol car and verifying Ms. Johnson's identity and license validity, Crooks issued her a written traffic warning. Before departing, Ms. Johnson again accused him of stopping her because of her race, which Crooks again denied. When Crooks asked her for identification, Ms. Johnson gave him her military identification card because she could not quickly find her driver's license. The card listed Ms. Johnson as a dependent civilian whose "sponsor" was Reginald Johnson. The following day, Crooks called Fort Riley to report the circumstances of the traffic stop "to the proper military supervisory personnel." Crooks was told there was no one in the military at Fort Riley named Linda Johnson. He was referred to the Judge Advocate General's Office, where he spoke, perhaps coincidentally, to Reginald Johnson. Mr. Johnson explained that Ms. Johnson was his wife and a military dependent, not a member of the military. When Crooks complained that Ms. Johnson had accused him of being a racist, Mr. Johnson stated that he believed Ms. Johnson's version of the traffic stop. Crooks asked to speak to Mr. Johnson's commanding officer about Ms. Johnson's warning citation. Mr. Johnson told Crooks how to contact his supervisor, the Deputy Inspector General, but Crooks did not do so.

The Johnsons' amended complaint seeks compensatory and punitive damages and pleads eight causes of action. The four pendent state law claims are not at issue on this interlocutory appeal. The four federal causes of action are Fourteenth Amendment claims for an unreasonable seizure and detention in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and for racially discriminatory treatment that violated the Johnsons' equal protection and due process rights. Crooks moved for summary judgment dismissing each federal claim on the grounds of qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion without separately analyzing the various claims.

II. The Fourth Amendment Claim.

The amended complaint alleges that Crooks violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments by stopping and detaining Ms. Johnson for an alleged traffic violation. It is well-settled that "stopping an automobile and detaining its occupants constitute a 'seizure' within the meaning of [the Fourth and Fourteenth] Amendments, even though the purpose of the stop is limited and the resulting detention quite brief." Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653 (1979). "An automobile stop is thus subject to the constitutional imperative that it not be 'unreasonable' under the circumstances." Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 810 (1996). In determining the reasonableness of an automobile search or seizure, the Supreme Court recognizes that automobiles are inherently mobile, motorists have a lessened Page 998

expectation of privacy when traveling on the public highways, and "[a]utomobiles, unlike homes, are subjected to pervasive and continuing governmental regulation and controls." South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 368 (1976); see Cardwell v. Lewis, 417 U.S. 583, 589-91 (1974). As the district court recognized, "any traffic violation, even a minor one, gives an officer probable cause to stop the violator. [In such a case,] the stop is objectively reasonable and any ulterior motivation on the officer's part is irrelevant." Conrad v. Davis, 120 F.3d 92, 96 (8th Cir. 1997) (quotation omitted), cert. denied, 523 U.S. 1081 (1998); see Whren, 517 U.S. at 811-13. However, the court denied summary judgment on the Fourth Amendment claim because Linda Johnson has averred that she did not cross the center line prior to the stop, creating a disputed factual issue that cannot be resolved at this stage of the proceedings as to whether Crooks had probable cause to make the stop. The issue on appeal, then, is whether the dispute over whether Ms. Johnson in fact crossed the center line is material for purposes of Crooks's qualified immunity defense to the Johnsons' § 1983 claim for damages.

On appeal, Crooks virtually concedes, and we accept, the district court's determination that Ms. Johnson's affidavit asserting she did not commit a traffic violation creates a genuine fact dispute concerning whether Crooks had probable cause to stop and detain her for that reason. But the district court's analysis overlooked the investigatory aspect of traffic stops in general and of this stop in particular. Because a brief traffic stop is a relatively minor intrusion on the motorist's privacy interests, its Fourth Amendment reasonableness is judged by the standard that applies to investigatory stops—whether "the officer's action is supported by reasonable suspicion to believe that criminal activity 'may be afoot.'" United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273 (2002) (quotation omitted); see United States v. Jones, 269 F.3d 919, 924 (8th Cir. 2001). An officer with reasonable suspicion may stop the automobile and may question the driver "to determine his identity and to try to obtain information confirming or dispelling the officer's suspicions." Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 439 (1984).

Even routine traffic violations may require some investigation into the motorist's conduct or condition, followed by the exercise of judgment in deciding how to enforce the traffic laws in that situation. For example, an officer who initially stops a car for running a red light may then accept the motorist's explanation that the light was yellow when she entered the intersection and let the driver depart with an oral or written warning. At that point, the investigatory stop is complete. See United States v. White, 81 F.3d 775, 777-78 (8th Cir.), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 1011 (1996). The motorist has suffered a delay, perhaps an irritating or even harmful delay, but "a routine traffic stop is an ordinary incident of driving." Ford v. Wilson, 90 F.3d 245, 248 (7th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 520 U.S. 1105 (1997). If the motorist then brings a § 1983 damage action, does her Fourth Amendment claim survive summary judgment and require a jury trial simply because she avers she did not run the red light? We think not. When an officer stops a motorist for a perceived traffic violation, briefly questions the motorist about what occurred, and lets the motorist Page 999

depart without issuing a citation or expanding the investigation beyond the question of a traffic violation, the officer has not unreasonably intruded upon the privacy and liberty interests protected by the Fourth Amendment. As the Supreme Court stated in holding police officers not liable under § 1983 for negligently arresting the wrong individual, "The Constitution does not guarantee that only the guilty will be arrested. If it did, § 1983 would provide a cause of action for every defendant acquitted—indeed, for every suspect released." Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 145 (1979). In this case, Crooks observed Ms. Johnson's car crossing the center line more than once on a two-lane rural highway rather early in the morning. In his affidavit supporting the motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds, Crooks explained his reasons for stopping Linda Johnson's car:

4. . . . I then observed that the car immediately ahead of me on several occasions crossed the centerline slightly into the oncoming traffic lane.

5. It is and was . . . my practice . . ....

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