DeWitt v. Dist. of Columbia, 10–CV–510.

CourtCourt of Appeals of Columbia District
Citation43 A.3d 291
Docket NumberNo. 10–CV–510.,10–CV–510.
PartiesSteven DeWITT, Appellant, v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Appellees.
Decision Date10 May 2012

43 A.3d 291

Steven DeWITT, Appellant,
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Appellees.

No. 10–CV–510.

District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Submitted Sept. 15, 2011.
Decided May 10, 2012.

[43 A.3d 293]

Steven R. DeWitt filed a brief, pro se.

Irvin B. Nathan, Acting Attorney General for the District of Columbia at the time the brief was filed, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General, Donna M. Murasky, Deputy Solicitor General, and James C. McKay, Jr., Senior Assistant Attorney General, were on the brief for appellees.

Before THOMPSON, Associate Judge, and PRYOR and NEBEKER, Senior Judges.

THOMPSON, Associate Judge:

Appellant Steven DeWitt appeals from an order of the Superior Court granting summary judgment in favor of defendants/appellees (the District of Columbia and four of its Metropolitan Police Department detectives) on DeWitt's complaint asserting common law claims of false imprisonment and malicious prosecution and a claim under the Unjust Imprisonment Act

[43 A.3d 294]

(the “UIA”), D.C.Code §§ 2–421 to –424 (2001). For the reasons discussed below, we affirm.

I. Background

A jury convicted DeWitt of second-degree murder and weapons offenses in connection with the May 13, 1991, shooting of Paul Ridley, and this court affirmed the conviction in an October 1, 1993, Memorandum Opinion and Judgment. In 2004, after having served over thirteen years of a fifteen-years-to-life sentence, DeWitt filed a motion under the Innocence Protection Act (the “IPA”), D.C.Code § 22–4135 (2001), to set aside his conviction. After a lengthy hearing, the Honorable Franklin Burgess, who had also presided over DeWitt's criminal trial, issued a 94–page memorandum opinion dated December 17, 2004, in which he detailed new evidence that an individual named Samuel Carson shot Ridley, and in which he described and analyzed numerous weaknesses and inconsistencies in the government's case against DeWitt. Judge Burgess vacated DeWitt's conviction and ordered a new trial, finding that it was “more likely than not that DeWitt is actually innocent,” that “the evidence favoring Carson's guilt is stronger than that favoring DeWitt's,” and that it was “more plausible to believe that Carson committed the killing.” Judge Burgess stated, however, that he could not find by “clear and convincing evidence” that DeWitt was innocent.1 After the United States Attorney declined to re-prosecute DeWitt, he was released from prison on December 24, 2004.

In June 2005, DeWitt gave notice to the Mayor of the District of Columbia of his intent to file a civil suit. In December 2005, DeWitt filed suit against the District and four police detectives 2 (together, the “District defendants”), asserting his false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and UIA claims. After the trial court (the Honorable Judith Retchin) initially denied a series of dispositive motions brought by the defendants, and after the close of discovery, the court (the Honorable Robert Richter) eventually granted the District's renewed motion for summary judgment, 3 reasoning (1) that the false imprisonment claim against the District of Columbia was barred because of DeWitt's failure to give timely notice under D.C.Code § 12–309; 4 (2) that neither the false imprisonment claim nor the malicious prosecution claim could succeed because there was probable cause for DeWitt's arrest and prosecution; and (3) that because of Judge Burgess's ruling, collateral estoppel applied to preclude DeWitt from re-litigating the issue of whether, by clear and convincing evidence, he was innocent of the offenses of which he was convicted.

DeWitt challenges each of those three

[43 A.3d 295]

rulings, our review of which is de novo.5 For the reasons discussed below, we agree with the last two rulings. Because our conclusion as to them enables us to affirm the grant of summary judgment, we need not discuss the first of the trial court's rulings. We therefore leave for another day the issue of whether (as DeWitt argues) long-term false imprisonment constitutes a continuous infliction of injury, such that giving notice of the claim within six months after any date on which the imprisonment continued constitutes notice “within six months after the injury ... was sustained” for the purposes of § 12–309.6

II. The False Imprisonment and Malicious Prosecution Claims

“The gist of any complaint for ... false imprisonment is an unlawful detention....” Clarke v. District of Columbia, 311 A.2d 508, 511 (D.C.1973). “[I]t is a familiar principle that probable cause for an arrest and detention constitutes a valid defense to a claim of false ... imprisonment.” Magwood v. Giddings, 672 A.2d 1083, 1086 (D.C.1996). For probable cause to exist, “it is sufficient that the arresting officer have a good faith, reasonable belief in the validity of the arrest and detention.” Gabrou v. May Dep't Stores Co., 462 A.2d 1102, 1104 (D.C.1983); see also Weisman v. Middleton, 390 A.2d 996, 1002 (D.C.1978) (noting that probable cause “may flow from a belief that turns out to be unfounded as long as it is not unreasonable”) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); Johnson v. United States, 349 A.2d 458, 460–61 (D.C.1975) (explaining that the test of probable cause is “whether at the moment the arrest was made,” ... “the facts and circumstances within [the officer's] knowledge and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information were sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing that the petitioner had committed ... an offense”) (quoting Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91, 85 S.Ct. 223, 13 L.Ed.2d 142 (1964) (internal quotation marks omitted)). “Probable cause must be supported by more than mere suspicion but need not be based on [the same quantum of] evidence sufficient to sustain a conviction.” Perkins v. United States, 936 A.2d 303, 306 (D.C.2007) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

“The existence of probable cause will likewise defeat a claim for malicious prosecution....” Gabrou, 462 A.2d at 1104;see also

[43 A.3d 296]

Prieto v. May Dep't Stores Co., 216 A.2d 577, 578 (D.C.1966) (“There is no material distinction between reasonable grounds for detention in false imprisonment and probable cause in malicious prosecution.”). “[T]o establish a case of malicious prosecution[,] there must be (a) a criminal proceeding instituted or continued by the defendant against the plaintiff, (b) termination of the proceeding in favor of the accused, (c) absence of probable cause for the proceeding, and (d) ‘Malice,’ or a primary purpose in instituting the proceeding other than that of bringing an offender to justice.” Jarett v. Walker, 201 A.2d 523, 526 (D.C.1964) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). As one court has observed, “[i]n an action for malicious prosecution, the plaintiff bears a heavy burden of proof to show lack of probable cause.” Schlueter v. S. Energy Homes, Inc., 252 Fed.Appx. 7, 9 (6th Cir.2007) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

The District defendants argue that summary judgment on DeWitt's false imprisonment and malicious prosecution claims was warranted because “[p]robable cause to arrest and imprison DeWitt until trial and to prosecute him is established by DeWitt's conviction, even though the conviction was later set aside.” The applicable principle, however, is that “a prior conviction, although set aside or reversed and followed by an acquittal, is conclusive evidence of the existence of probable cause, unless the conviction was procured by fraud, perjury or other corrupt means. Bumphus v. Smith, 189 A.2d 130, 131–32 (D.C.1963) (italics added, citations omitted). DeWitt alleged in his complaint that the defendants “erroneously testified” to the grand jury and at trial about eyewitness descriptions and photo identifications, manipulated a line-up identification and witness statements, beat and intimidated a witness (Christopher Hines) into implicating DeWitt in the murder, lost or withheld exculpatory information, and caused criminal proceedings to be instituted and continued against DeWitt, “even after [they] knew or reasonably should have known that no probable cause existed to support” the prosecution against him and his continuing detention. In his ruling after the IPA hearing, Judge Burgess made no findings confirmatory of those specific claims.7 Nevertheless, because DeWitt's allegations amount to claims of fraud or corruption,8 we decline to treat the fact of DeWitt's conviction as mandating a conclusion that there was probable cause for his imprisonment

[43 A.3d 297]

and prosecution. Rather, we go on to consider whether, leaving aside the evidence that DeWitt alleges was tainted by police misconduct and considering the evidence that was withheld, there was enough “reasonably trustworthy information ... to warrant a prudent man in believing that [DeWitt] had committed ... [the] offense.” Beck, 379 U.S. at 91, 85 S.Ct. 223;cf. Sanders v. United States, 550 A.2d 343, 345 (D.C.1988) (holding that false testimony supporting indictment was not material because other incriminating evidence presented to the grand jury also supported probable cause to indict).

Having reviewed the record, we agree with Judge Richter's conclusion, in his Order Granting Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, that the defendants “unquestionably had probable cause” to arrest and detain DeWitt and that no reasonable finder of fact “could find that [they] lacked either probable cause or a reasonable belief in probable cause.” As Judge Burgess's lengthy evidentiary summary recounted, two days after the shooting, when Detective Alexander Shepard showed eyewitness Rufus Pace a photo array, Pace selected DeWitt's photograph and one other in the photo array as resembling the shooter.9 On May 23, 1991, Pace selected DeWitt from a line-up. 10 On May 15, 1991, eyewitness Mildred Greene, the cashier at the gas station where Ridley was shot (who testified at trial that she looked “right into [the] face” of the shooter), picked...

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