870 F.Supp.2d 633 (E.D.Wis. 2012), 11-CV-486-JPS, Sutterfield v. City of Milwaukee

Docket Nº:11-CV-486-JPS.
Citation:870 F.Supp.2d 633
Opinion Judge:J.P. STADTMUELLER, District Judge.
Party Name:Krysta SUTTERFIELD, Plaintiff, v. CITY OF MILWAUKEE, Jamie Hewitt, Aaron Berken, James Floriani, Brandon Baranowski, Russell Huck, and Alan Carsky, Defendants.
Attorney:Adam B. Stephens, Milwaukee City Attorney's Office, Milwaukee, WI, John R. Monroe, Roswell, GA, for Plaintiff. Adam B. Stephens, Milwaukee City Attorney's Office, Milwaukee, WI, for Defendants.
Case Date:April 30, 2012
Court:United States District Courts, 7th Circuit, Eastern District of Wisconsin
 
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870 F.Supp.2d 633 (E.D.Wis. 2012)

Krysta SUTTERFIELD, Plaintiff,

v.

CITY OF MILWAUKEE, Jamie Hewitt, Aaron Berken, James Floriani, Brandon Baranowski, Russell Huck, and Alan Carsky, Defendants.

No. 11-CV-486-JPS.

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin.

April 30, 2012

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Adam B. Stephens, Milwaukee City Attorney's Office, Milwaukee, WI, John R. Monroe, Roswell, GA, for Plaintiff.

Adam B. Stephens, Milwaukee City Attorney's Office, Milwaukee, WI, for Defendants.

ORDER

J.P. STADTMUELLER, District Judge.

Plaintiff Krysta Sutterfield has sued the City of Milwaukee and several police officers, alleging that those police officers violated her civil rights in detaining her and seizing her guns after they were notified that Ms. Sutterfield had made a suicidal threat to her psychologist. (Docket # 19). The parties submitted cross-motions for summary judgment, which are now fully briefed. (Docket # 28, # 29, # 31, # 36, # 37, # 38). Having considered the merits of those briefs, the Court concludes that the City of Milwaukee and the police officer defendants are entitled to summary judgment.

1. BACKGROUND

The parties agree about practically all of the material facts in this case. ( See Pl.'s Resp. 2, Def.'s Resp. 3-4). The only factual issue that potentially remains in dispute is that of damages, if the Court were to determine that summary judgment is not proper at this stage of the litigation.

On March 22, 2011, at around noon, Dr. Michelle Bentle, a physician at Columbia/St. Mary's Hospital, placed a 911 call, indicating that Ms. Sutterfield had left her office after expressing suicidal thoughts. (DPFF ¶ 1, PPFF ¶ 1).

Two police officers— Clifton Stephens and Timothy Powers, neither of whom are defendants in this case— were dispatched to deal with this situation. (DPFF ¶ 1). Shortly thereafter, they contacted Dr. Bentle, who informed them that, prior to leaving Dr. Bentle's office, Ms. Sutterfield had stated " I guess I'll go home and blow my brains out." (DPFF ¶ 2).

Believing that Ms. Sutterfield was in need of intervention to prevent an attempted suicide, Officers Stephens and Powers went to Ms. Sutterfield's house, but did not find her there. (DPFF ¶ 4). Then, at 2:45 p.m., the officers received a call from Dr. Bentle informing them that Ms. Sutterfield had called her several minutes before, stating that she was not in need of assistance and that Dr. Bentle should " call off" the police search for her. (DPFF ¶ 5).

Shortly after receiving that call, Officers Stephens and Powers reached the end of their shifts, at which time they returned to their district station and drafted a " Statement of Emergency Detention by Law Enforcement Officer," authorizing the custody of Ms. Sutterfield based upon the information provided by Dr. Bentle. (DPFF ¶ 7).

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Shortly after Officers Stephens and Powers ended their shifts, at approximately 4:00 p.m., defendant Officer Jamie Hewitt was assigned to locate and detain Ms. Sutterfield, pursuant to the Statement of Emergency Detention. (DPFF ¶ 9).

Several hours later, just before 9:00 p.m., Officer Hewitt went to Ms. Sutterfield's residence. (DPFF ¶ 10). Officer Hewitt arrived, along with several other uniformed officers (several of the defendants in this case), and made contact with Ms. Hewitt through a storm door at the front of Ms. Sutterfield's house. (DPFF ¶¶ 11-12, PPFF ¶ 2). At that time, Ms. Sutterfield refused to open or unlock the screen door or to allow the police to enter her home. (DPFF ¶ 12, PPFF ¶¶ 2-3). Ms. Sutterfield repeatedly told the officers that she was not in need of their assistance. (PPFF ¶ 5).

Unable to gain entry to the home without force, Officer Hewitt requested assistance from Sergeant Aaron Berken. (DPFF ¶ 13). Sergeant Berken arrived at approximately 9:00 p.m., and was apprised of the situation. (DPFF ¶¶ 15-16). He then made contact with Ms. Sutterfield, who again refused to allow entry into her home. (DPFF ¶¶ 18-19). At some point during this encounter, Ms. Sutterfield called 911, and the phone call to 911 stayed active through her discussion with Sergeant Berken. (PPFF ¶ 4, fn. 1).

After Ms. Sutterfield again refused to allow the officers to enter her home, Sergeant Berken forcibly broke the lock on Ms. Sutterfield's storm door and entered her home with several other officers. (DPFF ¶ 19, PPFF ¶ 6). He did not have a warrant to do so. (PPFF ¶ 11). Upon entering, the officers attempted to detain Ms. Sutterfield and were successful in doing so after engaging in a brief struggle. (DPFF ¶ 20, PPFF ¶¶ 7-8).

After detaining Ms. Sutterfield, the officers performed a protective sweep of her home. (DPFF ¶ 21, PPFF ¶ 9). During the sweep, which took approximately ten minutes, defendant Officer James Floriani noticed a compact disc case in plain view; when he picked that case up, he felt a weight that he believed to be a firearm. (DPFF ¶¶ 22-23).1 The case was locked, but Officer Floriani broke it open, revealing a handgun and a number of concealed-carry licences from multiple jurisdictions. (DPFF ¶ 23, PPFF ¶ 10). Officer Floriani also discovered a BB gun, made to realistically resemble a handgun. (DPFF ¶ 24).

Sergeant Berken instructed Officer Floriani to keep the firearms to be inventoried for safekeeping. (DPFF ¶¶ 25-26). Sergeant Berken has stated that he requested the firearms be retained by the police in order to prevent them from being used by a juvenile, if the juvenile were to enter the home without an adult while Ms. Sutterfield remained in the hospital. (DPFF ¶ 26). Officer Floriani stated that he believed seizure of the firearms was appropriate due to his fear that, upon Ms. Sutterfield's release from the hospital, she would use the handgun to commit suicide or the BB gun to provoke an officer to shoot and kill her. (DPFF ¶ 27).

The police then transported Ms. Sutterfield to the Milwaukee County Health Complex, pursuant to the Statement of Emergency that had been filed earlier in

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the day by Officers Stephens and Powers. (DPFF ¶¶ 7, 28).

2. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is proper when the record establishes that there are no " genuine issue[s] of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). A " genuine issue of material fact" exists when a rational factfinder could find in favor of the nonmoving party; in making this determination, the Court must construe all facts in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw any reasonable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor, as well. Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 129 S.Ct. 2658, 2677, 174 L.Ed.2d 490 (2009); Basith v. Cook County, 241 F.3d 919, 926 (7th Cir.2001). However, a mere scintilla of evidence is insufficient to create such a genuine issue of material fact. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

Having found that there are no material facts in dispute— aside from the potential dispute over damages, if the Court were to determine that the defendants' were not entitled to summary judgment— the Court may appropriately address the substantive legal dispute between the parties now, at the summary judgment stage. See, e.g., Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

3. DISCUSSION

There are two broad issues that the Court must address in determining whether it can grant one of the parties' motions for summary judgment:

(1) whether Ms. Sutterfield's suit against the City of Milwaukee or the defendant officers is barred by Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of New York, 436 U.S. 658[, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978) ] (as applied to the City), or principles of qualified immunity (as applied to the officers); and

(2) whether, Ms. Sutterfield did, in fact, suffer a violation of her constitutional rights.

Logically, to save time on analysis, the Court would address the first issue— whether Ms. Sutterfield can sustain her suit— before addressing the second; here, though, the Court will reverse that order. It may seem to be a waste of time to engage in an analysis of Ms. Sutterfield's constitutional claim when that claim may not (and, as the Court ultimately concludes, does not ) lie against any of the defendants as a matter of law. But the Court's analysis of the potential constitutional violation informs its analysis of the potential bars to suit. Therefore, it is a productive use of the Court's time to delve into the constitutional issues raised by Ms. Sutterfield before dismissing her suit outright as barred by Monell, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, and principles of qualified immunity.

3.1 Constitutional Violation

Ms. Sutterfield alleges that the officers violated her constitutional rights by: (1) entering her home without a warrant (Def. Br. in Supp. 3-14); and (2) illegally searching her home and seizing her firearms (Def. Br. in Supp. 14-19). On both of these fronts, the officers' actions certainly straddle the line between constitutional and unconstitutional. But, in the end, the lawfulness of the police officers' actions are relevant only to the extent they inform the Court's Monell, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, and qualified immunity inquiries.

3.1.1 Home Entry

The officers broke Ms. Sutterfield's door and entered her house without a warrant— an action that is presumptively unlawful under the Fourth Amendment. See, e.g.,

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Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 586, 100 S.Ct. 1371, 63 L.Ed.2d 639 (1980), United States v. Huddleston, 593 F.3d 596, 600 (7th Cir.2010). Nonetheless, there is an exception to that presumption in the case that the officers reasonably believed they were faced with a...

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