Fincher v. Monroe Cnty. Bd. of Comm'rs

Decision Date30 March 2020
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. 5:18-cv-00424-TES
PartiesDASHA FINCHER, Plaintiff, v. THE MONROE COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS, et al., Defendants.
CourtUnited States District Courts. 11th Circuit. Middle District of Georgia

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Before the Court is the remaining Defendants Monroe County Board of Commissioners ("Monroe County"),1 Allen Henderson, Cody Maples,2 and KevinWilliams' summary judgment motion [Doc. 30]. Plaintiff Dasha Fincher spent 94 days in jail based on a field drug test's false-positive result that led sheriff deputies to mistake blue cotton candy for methamphetamine. Plaintiff subsequently filed suit against Monroe County, the two arresting sheriff deputies, Williams and Maples, and the sheriff's evidence custodian, Henderson.3 These Defendants argue that all claims against them arising from Plaintiff's arrest and detainment for the mistaken substance are due to be dismissed. Plaintiff essentially argues that she was treated with deliberate indifference during her confinement, and the officers lacked arguable probable cause to arrest her. While the Court certainly sympathizes with Plaintiff, the Court finds that, as a matter of law, Plaintiff has failed to present evidence that shows Defendants could be liable for events arising from her arrest and detainment.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A. Initial Stop and Search of Vehicle

On December 31, 2016, Plaintiff and her boyfriend, David Morris, decided to run an errand for a friend and take a pawn ticket from Macon to Bolingbroke, Georgia. [Doc. 32, Fincher Depo., p. 17:13—18]; [Doc. 33, Morris Depo., pp. 16:23—17:12]. Morris drove a friend's car, and the two took I-75 north to the Pate Road exit. [Doc. 32, FincherDepo., p. 18:3—22]; [Doc. 33, Morris Depo., p. 18:1—8]. The car had tinted windows. [Doc. 32, Fincher Depo., pp. 53:22—54:1].

Defendants Kevin Williams and Cody Maples positioned their patrol car in the median of I-75 just before the Pate Road exit, facing northbound traffic. [Id., p. 19:10—25]; [Doc. 33, Morris Depo., p. 18:9—13]. The weather was overcast and rainy, and the officers thought that Plaintiff's car window tint appeared to be too dark. See generally [Doc. 34, Dash Cam Video]; [Doc. 40, Maples Depo., p. 21:11—13]; [Doc. 41, Williams Depo., p. 39:3—7].

The officers initiated a traffic stop, with video evidence showing their patrol car's lights reflected on road signs as the two vehicles entered the Heritage Farm subdivision. [Doc. 34, Dash Cam Video, 01:05—01:49]. Plaintiff's car did not stop immediately and continued driving past empty stretches of road where the car could have pulled over. [Id., 01:05—01:49]. Morris then finally stopped the car on the shoulder. [Id., 01:05—01:49]. Plaintiff told Morris that he was about to go to jail because he did not have a license. [Doc. 32, Fincher Depo., p. 21:11—14].

Both Williams and Maples exited their patrol car and approached Plaintiff's car on the passenger's side where Plaintiff was sitting. [Doc. 34, Dash Cam Video, 01:49—02:35]. Morris told the officers that he did not have a valid license. [Doc. 32, Fincher Depo., p. 22:12—13]. The video then shows Maples tested the window tint, which theofficers found to be just under the legal limit. [Doc. 34, Dash Cam Video, 03:09—03:30]; [Doc. 40, Maples Depo., p. 26:8—23]; [Doc. 41, Williams Depo., pp. 41:16—42:1].

Approximately four minutes into the stop, the deputies called in Morris's license number and Plaintiff's name and date of birth into dispatch. Both Plaintiff and Morris had suspended licenses, which meant neither of them could legally drive. [Id., pp. 61:19—62:4]. The officers asked Plaintiff and Morris to exit the car. [Doc. 34, Dash Cam Video, 06:03—08:30]. Now outside, Plaintiff and Morris consented to Williams' request to search their vehicle. [Doc. 32, Fincher Depo., p. 23:9—16].

Williams searched the car and found a bag of what later turned out to be blue cotton candy on the floorboard of the passenger's side of the vehicle. [Id., p. 24:11—18]; [Doc. 34, Dash Cam Video, 12:00—14:50]. Williams described it as a blue crystallized substance. [Doc. 41, Williams Depo., p. 41:11—22]. Plaintiff explained during her deposition that the cotton candy was likely hardened from being a day old and left in the car. [Doc. 32, Fincher Depo., p. 58:19—22]. When Williams pulled the substance out of the car, Plaintiff and Morris simultaneously identified it as cotton candy. [Doc. 33, Morris Depo., p. 22:13—17].

B. Testing and Identification of the Substance as Concealed Methamphetamine

Williams knew methamphetamines could be concealed in many ways, but he had only seen meth before that was white, brown, or pink. [Doc. 41, Williams Depo., pp. 18:24—19:16]. Williams never told Maples why he thought the substance was meth.[Doc. 40, Maples Depo., p. 20:13—17]. Maples smelled the substance and, according to Plaintiff and Morris, said it smelled like cotton candy. [Id., p. 20:13—17]; [Doc. 32, Fincher Depo., p. 54:11—12]; [Doc. 33, Morris Depo., pp. 22:25—23:1]. Maples and Williams both admitted they sniffed the substance, but neither claimed to recall any particular odor. [Doc. 40, Maples Depo., p. 20:13—17]; [Doc. 41, Williams Depo., p. 35:14—20]. The GBI crime lab technician noted that the substance smelled like blueberry. [Doc. 41-1, p. 38].

Still, Williams decided to test the material for methamphetamines using the Sirchie Nark II field test kit. [Doc. 41, Williams Depo., pp. 50:23—51:4]; [Doc. 41-1, p. 4]. After Williams administered the test, he believed the result showed a purple color, which meant the tested substance contained methamphetamine [Doc. 41, Williams Depo., p. 23:2—13]. However, Williams did not technically follow the kit's instructions or his training while administering the test because he did not wear nitrile gloves or use the required dose amount of testing material. [Id., pp. 22:14—17, 25:7—21, 30:9—22]. Further, Plaintiff argues the test returned a red color—which very closely matched the negative example on the Sirchie training material—indicating the substance tested did not contain methamphetamine. [Doc. 37-3]; [Doc. 37-5, p. 75].

Plaintiff appeared genuinely shocked that the test returned a positive for meth. [Doc. 34, Dash Cam Video, 27:30—29:00]. Plaintiff requested Williams test the substance again. [Doc. 32, Fincher Depo., p. 25:6—12]. Instead, Williams sent a photograph of thetest result to Gregory Phillips, a Monroe County drug investigator. [Doc. 41, Williams Depo., p. 52:3—12]; [Doc. 37-3]. Phillips agreed with Williams that the test showed a positive result for meth. [Doc. 30-4, Phillips Aff., ¶¶ 4—6].

Regarding the Sirchie test kits in question, Sheriff Brad Freeman and the officer Defendants stated that they were not aware of any complaints about the kits returning a high number of false positives. [Doc. 30-3, Freeman Aff., ¶ 4]; [Doc. 40, Maples Depo., p. 17:10—15]; [Doc. 41, Williams Depo., p. 61:5—10]; [Doc. 39, Henderson Depo., pp. 42:14—43:8]. The sheriff's office ordered the kits, and the County paid for them with money that had been allocated to the sheriff's budget. [Doc. 30-3, Freeman Aff., ¶ 9]; [Doc. 39, Henderson Depo., p. 21:5—22].

Williams did not recall reading any training material from Sirchie, except for the instructions on the box on how to use the test kit. [Doc. 41, Williams Depo., p. 34:12—18]. Henderson also did not have training on the roadside test kit. [Doc. 39, Henderson Depo., p. 20:6—12]. However, the sheriff's office appeared to have been given training material and a protocol checklist from Sirchie prior to Plaintiff's arrest. [Doc. 37-5]; [Doc. 40-1, p. 17]. Williams had used the field test kit approximately a dozen times before the incident and never had a false positive before. [Doc. 41, Williams Depo., pp. 66:16—67:2]. Williams only received training in administering the test kit from working alongside the Monroe narcotics team and reading the test kit instructions on the side of the box. [Doc. 41, Williams Depo., pp. 19:17—20:9].

C. Subsequent Arrest for Possessing Methamphetamine

After concluding the test result was positive, Williams handcuffed Plaintiff and Morris. [Doc. 34, Dash Cam Video, 29:00—29:30]. Plaintiff and Morris were placed in the back of the patrol car, and Williams called dispatch for a criminal history report on Plaintiff and Morris. The criminal histories showed that Morris had a prior conviction for trafficking in meth, and Plaintiff had a prior conviction for manufacturing/distributing marijuana. [Doc. 30-11]; [Doc. 30-12].

Maples and Williams submitted the evidence to Henderson, who placed the substance in the evidence locker. [Doc. 39, Henderson Depo., p. 8:3—12]; [Doc. 40, Maples Depo., p. 40:23—25]. Maples swore out a warrant for Plaintiff's arrest based on the positive field test. [Doc. 30-5]. Plaintiff was initially charged with a violation of the Georgia Controlled Substances Act. The charge was later changed to trafficking based on the weight of the substance after the warrant was sworn. [Doc. 40, Maples Depo., p. 50:14—23]; [Doc. 41, Williams Depo., p. 62:4—11]. A Monroe County superior court judge set Plaintiff's bond at $1 million cash. [Doc. 30-6].

Henderson submitted the evidence to the GBI crime lab on January 6, 2017. [Doc. 39, Henderson Depo., pp. 8:3—12, 64:14—16]. Maples later testified before the Grand Jury, admitting that he had no training in drug recognition and stating the substance had been sent to the GBI for testing. [Doc. 40, Maples Depo., pp. 45:20—41:21]. Maples had no idea why the Grand Jury was convened before the drug test result came backfrom the GBI. [Id., p. 46:19—21]. On March 15, 2017, the Monroe County Grand Jury indicted Plaintiff on charges of trafficking meth and possession of meth with intent to distribute. [Doc. 30-7]. GBI records show that, the next day, someone from the DA's Office requested the test result be expedited. [Doc. 39-1, pp. 8—9]; [Doc. 39, Henderson Depo.,...

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