Alexander v. City of Round Rock

Decision Date18 April 2017
Docket NumberNo. 16-50839,16-50839
Citation854 F.3d 298
Parties Lionel ALEXANDER, Plaintiff–Appellant v. CITY OF ROUND ROCK, a Municipal Entity; Officer Marciano Garza, Individually and in His Official Capacity; Sergeant Greg Brunson, Individually and in His Official Capacity; Sergeant Sampson Connell, Individually and in His Official Capacity; Officer Tracy Staggs, Individually and in His Official Capacity; John Does, City of Round Rock Police Officers, Individually and in Their Official Capacity, Defendants–Appellees
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Karen Elisabeth Oprea, Law Office of Oprea & Weber, Austin, TX, for PlaintiffAppellant.

Mike Thompson, Jr., Esq., Archie Carl Pierce, Esq., Wright & Greenhill, P.C., Austin, TX, for DefendantsAppellees.

Before SMITH, CLEMENT, and SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judges.


Officer Marciano Garza pulled over Lionel Alexander in a hotel parking lot after observing what he perceived as suspicious activity. Alexander refused to answer Garza's questions. After waiting for backup to arrive, Garza and other officers forcibly removed Alexander from his car, handcuffed him, and ultimately arrested him for resisting a search. Alexander sued the officers and the city under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The district court granted the officers' motion to dismiss all claims. Alexander appeals. We AFFIRM in part, REVERSE in part, and REMAND for further proceedings.


We stress at the outset that, because this appeal is from a grant of a motion to dismiss, all of the following facts are drawn exclusively from the allegations in Alexander's complaint.

Alexander was staying at a hotel in Round Rock, Texas. At approximately 9:15 p.m. he returned to the hotel from a trip to the grocery store and saw a stray cat in the hotel parking lot. He stopped his car, exited, and peered into the grass near his vehicle looking for the cat, intending to feed it. He could not find the cat and so turned to get back into his car, planning to park it in a spot nearer his hotel room. Upon turning to reenter his car, he noticed a police car in the parking lot but, not knowing why the police car was there and assuming it was unrelated to him, Alexander got back in his vehicle and proceeded to drive toward his room.

While Alexander was moving his car, Garza, who was driving the police car in the parking lot, activated his emergency lights and pulled Alexander over. Garza approached Alexander's vehicle and told Alexander that he was curious as to what Alexander had been doing. Alexander gave Garza his driver's license and informed Garza that he would not answer any of the officer's questions. At this point, Garza radioed for backup, citing "noncompliance." While he was waiting for backup to arrive, Garza stood by the window of Alexander's car, told Alexander to keep his hands on the steering wheel, and continued to question him.

After some time, backup arrived in the form of Sergeant Greg Brunson, Sergeant Sampson Connell, Officer Tracy Staggs, and unidentified John Does (together with Garza, the "officers"). Garza then asked Alexander to exit his car. Alexander responded by asking Garza why he wanted him to get out of the car, and Garza responded, "Because I asked you to." Alexander began to reply that he did not believe he was legally required to exit. Before he finished, Garza and the other officers pulled Alexander from the car and pinned him face down onto the ground. One officer pressed a boot or knee on the back of Alexander's neck as his face was "mashed into the concrete." Alexander felt at least three officers on top of his body, "manipulating his limbs and putting pressure on his torso, neck, and head."

The officers handcuffed Alexander and sat him on a curb. Garza asked Alexander, "[a]re you ready to talk to me now?" Alexander refused, using an unidentified expletive. The officers then shackled Alexander's legs. At some point, either during the forcible removal from his car or while he was on the curb, Alexander sustained "injuries to his body ... including injuries to his mouth." He "sustained emotional and psychological injuries as well." Throughout this ordeal, Alexander did not physically resist the officers in any way.

Garza informed Alexander that he was under arrest "for uttering an expletive where the public could hear him, which [Garza] asserted was a violation of the [Texas] disorderly conduct statute." The officers then searched Alexander's person and vehicle, finding nothing illegal or suspicious. Alexander was placed handcuffed into the back of one of the officers' police cars and taken to the Round Rock police station. He was then transported to the Williamson County Jail, where he remained for approximately twenty hours. In his formal police report, Garza wrote that Alexander was arrested not for disorderly conduct, but for resisting a search in violation of Texas Penal Code ("TPC") § 38.03(a). Alexander was eventually released. No criminal charges were brought.

Alexander sued the City of Round Rock, Garza, and the other officers in federal district court, asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and various provisions of the Texas Constitution. Alexander argued, among other things, that: (1) there was no reasonable suspicion supporting his detention; (2) there was no probable cause supporting his arrest; (3) he was retaliated against for exercising his constitutional rights; and (4) the officers used excessive force when pulling him from his vehicle.1 The officers moved to dismiss all claims, asserting that they were entitled to qualified immunity. The district court granted the officers' motion to dismiss, holding that, with regard to some of Alexander's claims, he had not alleged any violations of his constitutional rights, and with regard to the others, Alexander was unable to overcome the qualified immunity defense. Alexander now appeals.


We review "a district court's dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) de novo," Thompson v. City of Waco, Tex. , 764 F.3d 500, 502 (5th Cir. 2014) (emphasis omitted), "accepting all well-pleaded facts as true and viewing those facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Stokes v. Gann , 498 F.3d 483, 484 (5th Cir. 2007). Dismissal is appropriate only when a plaintiff has not alleged "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face" and has failed to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007).

When a government official asserts a qualified immunity defense, the burden is on the plaintiff to "show that he pleaded facts showing ... that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right. If the plaintiff makes this ... showing, then [we must] determine whether the defendants' actions were objectively unreasonable in light of the law that was clearly established at the time of the actions complained of." United States ex rel Parikh v. Brown , 587 Fed.Appx. 123, 127–28 (5th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks, citations, and alteration omitted); see also Atteberry v. Nocona Gen. Hosp. , 430 F.3d 245, 253 (5th Cir. 2005). When engaging in the qualified immunity analysis, we are "permitted to exercise [our] sound discretion in deciding which of the two prongs ... should be addressed first in light of the circumstances in the particular case at hand." Pearson v. Callahan , 555 U.S. 223, 236, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009). We "review a grant of qualified immunity de novo." Gonzalez v. Huerta , 826 F.3d 854, 856 (5th Cir. 2016) (quoting Bishop v. Arcuri , 674 F.3d 456, 460 (5th Cir. 2012) ).


Alexander argues on appeal that Garza and the other officers are liable for: (1) unlawfully detaining him; (2) arresting him without probable cause; (3) retaliating against him for exercising his First and Fifth Amendment rights; and (4) using excessive force against him. We address each argument in turn.

A. Unlawful Detention

"Warrantless searches and seizures are ‘per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment—subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.’ " United States v. Hill , 752 F.3d 1029, 1033 (5th Cir. 2014) (quoting Katz v. United States , 389 U.S. 347, 357, 88 S.Ct. 507, 19 L.Ed.2d 576 (1967) ). The Supreme Court carved out one such narrow exception in Terry v. Ohio , 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). "Under Terry , if a law enforcement officer can point to specific and articulable facts that lead him to reasonably suspect that a particular person is committing, or is about to commit, a crime, the officer may briefly detain—that is, ‘seize’—the person to investigate." Hill , 752 F.3d at 1033 (citing United States v. Jordan , 232 F.3d 447, 448 (5th Cir. 2000) ); see also United States v.Sanders , 994 F.2d 200, 203 (5th Cir. 1993) ("[A]fter the Supreme Court's opinion in Terry v. Ohio , it is now axiomatic that the police are allowed to stop and briefly detain persons for investigative purposes if the police have a reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that criminal activity may be afoot.") (internal quotation marks and footnote omitted). "While ‘reasonable suspicion’ is a less demanding standard than probable cause ... the Fourth Amendment requires at least a minimal level of objective justification for making the stop. The officer must be able to articulate more than an ‘inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch’ of criminal activity." Illinois v. Wardlow , 528 U.S. 119, 123–24, 120 S.Ct. 673, 145 L.Ed.2d 570 (2000) (quoting United States v. Sokolow , 490 U.S. 1, 7, 109 S.Ct. 1581, 104 L.Ed.2d 1 (1989) ; Terry , 392 U.S. at 27, 88 S.Ct. 1868 ).

Both this court and the Supreme Court have dealt frequently with reasonable suspicion or its absence. The Supreme Court case with the most salience is Wardlow , in which the Court had to determine...

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