Mayfield v. Bethards

Decision Date20 June 2016
Docket NumberNo. 15-3074,15-3074
Citation826 F.3d 1252
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Tenth Circuit
PartiesKent Mayfield and Tonya Mayfield, Plaintiffs–Appellees, v. Jim Bethards, part-time Deputy, Defendant–Appellant. Harvey County Sheriff's Department; T. Walton, Sheriff; Carman Clark, Sheriff Deputy; Scott Motes, Sergeant; Todd Hanchett, Undersheriff; Greg Nye, District Attorney; Tim Boese, Corporal; Harvey County District Court; John Does 1–3; Jane Does 1–3, Defendants.

Submitted on the briefs:*

Kent Mayfield, Tonya Mayfield, pro se.

Toby Crouse, Foulston Siefkin, LLP., Overland Park, Kansas, for Jim Bethards, DefendantAppellant.

Before LUCERO , POR FILIO, and McHUGH, Circuit Judges.

McHUGH, Circuit Judge.

Kent and Tonya Mayfield, proceeding pro se, brought this action against Deputy Jim Bethards under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming he violated their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by killing their pet dog. Deputy Bethards raised a qualified-immunity defense and moved to dismiss the Complaint under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. The district court denied his motion and Deputy Bethards appeals. We affirm.

I. Background

The Mayfields claim Deputies Clark and Bethards violated their Fourth Amendment rights by entering their property without a warrant with the intention of killing their two dogs, firing upon both dogs, and killing one of them.1 According to the Complaint, the deputies saw the Mayfields' dogs Suka and Majka lying in the front yard of the Mayfields' private residence in Halstead, Kansas, on July 13, 2014. The deputies exited their vehicle and entered the Mayfields' unfenced front yard to approach the dogs. In the Complaint, the Mayfields allege a witness observed that although neither dog acted aggressively, both officers began firing on the dogs once on the Mayfields' property. Deputy Clark fired on Suka, the Mayfields' brown dog, but missed as she fled to the back of the house. Deputy Bethards shot Majka, the Mayfields' white Malamute Husky, three times, killing her on the front porch.

The deputies then unsuccessfully searched for Suka behind the house, where she had disappeared into a wooded section of the Mayfields' property. The Complaint further alleges that upon returning to the front yard, the deputies first moved Majka's body in an apparent attempt to obscure that she had been shot on the Mayfields' property and then tried to hide her body in a row of trees.

Deputies Clark and Bethards raised a qualified-immunity defense and moved to dismiss the Complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The district court dismissed the Mayfields' Fourth Amendment claim against Deputy Clark on qualified immunity.2 But the district court denied qualified immunity to Deputy Bethards, finding the Complaint set forth a plausible claim that Deputy Bethards violated the Mayfields' clearly established Fourth Amendment rights by unlawfully seizing Majka when he shot and killed her.

Deputy Bethards filed a timely appeal. We affirm the district court's decision.

II. Jurisdiction

The denial of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss on qualified-immunity grounds is an appealable final order if it turns on an issue of law. Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 672, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) ([T]his Court has been careful to say that a district court's order rejecting qualified immunity at the motion-to-dismiss stage of a proceeding is a ‘final decision’ within the meaning of [28 U.S.C.] § 1291.”); Keith v. Koerner , 707 F.3d 1185, 1187 (10th Cir. 2013). The district court found the Mayfields had sufficiently alleged a violation of their clearly established rights. Whether a plaintiff has sufficiently “alleged a violation of his clearly established constitutional rights to overcome [the defendant's] defense of qualified immunity is an issue of law reviewable on interlocutory appeal.” Brown v. Montoya , 662 F.3d 1152, 1162 (10th Cir. 2011). Accordingly, we exercise jurisdiction pursuant to § 1291 to review the district court's order denying Deputy Bethards's qualified immunity defense. See Mitchell v. Forsyth , 472 U.S. 511, 526–27, 530, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985) ; Keith , 707 F.3d at 1187.

III. Standard of Review and Relevant Law

We review the denial of a motion to dismiss “de novo, applying the same standards as the district court.” Keith , 707 F.3d at 1187. To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must allege facts that, if true, “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Wilson v. Montano , 715 F.3d 847, 852 (10th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). A claim is facially plausible when the allegations give rise to a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable. Id. In reviewing a motion to dismiss, we accept the facts alleged in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Brown , 662 F.3d at 1162. And because the Mayfields appear pro se, we liberally construe their pleadings. Diversey v. Schmidly , 738 F.3d 1196, 1199 (10th Cir. 2013).

Qualified immunity protects government officials from suit for civil damages if their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights. Thomas v. Kaven , 765 F.3d 1183, 1194 (10th Cir. 2014). When a defendant raises a qualified immunity defense, the court must dismiss the action unless the plaintiff shows that (1) the defendant violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) the right was clearly established at the time of the violation. See id. The court may address these requirements in any order. Wilson , 715 F.3d at 852.

IV. Analysis
A. The complaint states a plausible violation of the Mayfields' Fourth Amendment rights.

The Fourth Amendment protects [t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. Deputy Bethards argues the Complaint fails to state a plausible Fourth Amendment claim because dogs are not “effects” subject to Fourth Amendment protection and, regardless, killing Majka was reasonable under the circumstances as a matter of law. We disagree.

Although the Fourth Amendment uses the word “effects,” the Supreme Court has long equated that term with personal property.3 See United States v. Place , 462 U.S. 696, 700–01, 103 S.Ct. 2637, 77 L.Ed.2d 110 (1983) (“In the ordinary case, the Court has viewed a seizure of personal property as per se unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment unless it is accomplished pursuant to a judicial warrant issued upon probable cause and particularly describing the items to be seized.”); see also Illinois v. McArthur , 531 U.S. 326, 330, 121 S.Ct. 946, 148 L.Ed.2d 838 (2001) (same). And Kansas has recognized for at least as long that dogs are their owners' personal property. See Kan. Stat. Ann. § 79-1301 (“A dog shall be considered as personal property and have all the rights and privileges and be subject to like lawful restraints as other livestock.”); State v. Fenske , 144 Kan. 560, 61 P.2d 1368, 1369 (1936) (upholding larceny conviction for stealing a dog and stating [w]e have no hesitancy in saying a dog is personal property”). Thus, it is unlawful to seize a dog absent a warrant or circumstances justifying an exception to the warrant requirement. See G.M. Leasing Corp. v. United States , 429 U.S. 338, 358 & n.21, 97 S.Ct. 619, 50 L.Ed.2d 530 (1977) (discussing exceptions to warrant requirement).

“A ‘seizure’ of property occurs when there is some meaningful interference with an individual's possessory interests in that property.” United States v. Jacobsen , 466 U.S. 109, 113, 104 S.Ct. 1652, 80 L.Ed.2d 85 (1984). Killing a dog meaningfully and permanently interferes with the owner's possessory interest. It therefore constitutes a violation of the owner's Fourth Amendment rights absent a warrant or some exception to the warrant requirement.

Deputy Bethards argues that, even if the Fourth Amendment applies, killing Majka was reasonable because he thought she had attacked livestock and he believed Kansas law allows anyone to kill a dog reported to have done so. But Deputy Bethards's explanation for killing Majka is found in his police report, not the Mayfields' Complaint. At this stage of the proceedings, our review is limited to the Complaint and any documents it incorporates. See Gee v. Pacheco , 627 F.3d 1178, 1186 (10th Cir. 2010).4

Although the Complaint does not incorporate Deputy Bethards's police report, it incorporates a letter from the Mayfields to Sheriff Walton in which they dispute as a case of “mistaken identity” an accusation that Majka had mauled a neighbor's livestock a year before Deputy Bethards shot her. Specifically, the attached letter alleges the livestock owner shot the offending white husky during the previous incident, and the dog—a different white dog than Majka—had to be “put down” as a result of the shotgun wounds. In addition, the Complaint alleges that neither of the Mayfields' dogs was acting aggressively toward the officers when Deputy Bethards killed Majka.

We agree with the district court that these allegations state a plausible claim for violation of the Mayfields' Fourth Amendment rights, even considering the Kansas statute relied on by Deputy Bethards. Section 47-646 of the Kansas Statutes allows “any person at any time to kill any dog which may be found injuring or attempting to injure any livestock.” Kan. Stat. Ann. § 47-646. According to Deputy Bethards, the Kansas Supreme Court in McDonald v. Bauman , 199 Kan. 628, 433 P.2d 437 (1967), interpreted this statute to permit a person not only to kill an offending dog caught in the act of injuring or attempting to injure livestock, but also to pursue and kill the dog after it has returned to its owner's land. But that case cannot be read as broadly as Deputy Bethards suggests.

In McDonald, the defendant shot a dog he caught attacking his hogs, chased the dog...

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