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Meeks v. City of Detroit

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

November 16, 2016

CITY OF DETROIT, et. al., Defendants.



         Illustrating the difficulties attendant to photo array identification procedures, this malicious prosecution claim arises from criminal charges brought against Plaintiff James Edward Meeks in connection with three armed robberies that took place within a few hours on June 8, 2015. Meeks committed one of the robberies, to which he confessed. The victim of that robbery gave a cogent statement and pointed officers to the intersection and neighborhood in which he (correctly) believed Meeks resided, but soon became hard to locate. The readily available victims in the two other robberies were shown mug shots and both positively identified the same suspect; police thought it was Meeks but it was not. The problem arose when the computerized mug shot generator responded to a query for “James Meeks” with two shots of Plaintiff Meeks, and one of an unrelated man, James Meekslittle. The similarity of the surnames apparently outweighed the difference, and for other reasons that are not entirely clear, the photo of Meekslittle was the one chosen to place in the photo array. Compounding the mistake, it was the photo of Meekslittle that was positively identified as the robber by two of the four victim witnesses.

         In his December 7, 2015 complaint, Plaintiff alleges state and federal civil rights violations by various officers involved in the investigation, as well as by Defendant City of Detroit. This court has dismissed Plaintiff's state law claims without prejudice, leaving Plaintiff with two counts alleging violations of his federal constitutional rights brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Dkt. # 18.) One count alleges malicious prosecution against Defendants Sergeant Otha Craighead, Detective Terry Cross-Nelson, Detective Dana Russell, and Detective Shawn Schmelter (“Defendant Officers”); the other is against the city under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). (Id.) Now before the court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by all Defendants on August 10, 2016. (Dkt. # 27.) The motion is fully briefed and a hearing was held on November 2, 2016. For the reasons that follow, the court will grant Defendants' motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted. At approximately 2:20 a.m. on June 8, 2015 a gas station attendant at the Fast Track Gas Station, located at 12800 East 7 Mile Road in Detroit, Michigan, flagged down four city police officers. (Dkt. # 27-7.) The attendant told the officers that someone had fired a gun inside the gas station, after which men inside the station ran out. (Id.) Two officers went into the gas station and spoke to Terrell Floyd. Floyd told the officers that a man had entered the gas station with a firearm and demanded that Floyd and an unidentified individual “empty [their] pockets” and fired his weapon into the ground after Floyd refused. (Dkt. # 27-8.)

         Floyd described the suspect as a black male, 24-25 years old, standing about 5' 3'', weighing about 190 pounds, with a “big belly, ” a dark complexion, and medium-length dreadlocks. (Id.) Floyd further described the suspect as wearing a white t-shirt, blue jean shorts, and black gym shoes, and described the firearm as possibly being a nine millimeter. Floyd said the suspect entered a black vehicle, possibly a Mercury Mountaineer, and fled northbound. (Id.) Floyd, apparently recognizing the suspect, told the officers that he believed the suspect lived on either Goulburn or Waltham, between East 7 Mile and Lappin. (Id.) The investigation was turned over to Sergeant Matthew Fulks. (Dkt. # 27-2, Pg. ID 276.)

         A few hours after the Fast Track robbery, officers responded to a reported carjacking at the Sunoco Gas Station, located at 1901 East 7 Mile. (Dkt. # 27-9.) Allen Williams, the victim, told the officers that a black male with a dark complexion, medium build, a goatee, and wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt and black pants, approached him with what appeared to be a nickel-plated revolver. (Id.) Williams told the officers that the suspect went through his pockets, taking his keys and wallet, before driving off with his 2000 Ford Crown Victoria. (Id.) The Sunoco carjacking was subsequently assigned to Defendant Russell. (Dkt. # 27-2, Pg. ID 277.)

         Forty minutes after the Sunoco carjacking, Officer Kimberly Wright responded to another carjacking, this time at the Citgo Gas Station, located at 19030 Van Dyke Road in Detroit, three miles east of the Sunoco station. (Dkt. # 27-10.) The Citgo carjacking had three victims. (Id.) One victim, Donald Sanders, told Officer Wright that two black men, one wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt, pulled up in a Crown Victoria while the victims were walking out of the station. (Id.) Sanders stated that the passenger jumped out of the vehicle armed with a silver handgun and demanded the keys to Sanders's black 2005 Dodge Durango. (Id.) Defendant Schmelter was assigned the Citgo carjacking. (Dkt. # 27-2, Pg. ID 277.)

         Defendant Detective Dieasree Curry, as part of the Detroit Police Department's Crime Intelligence unit, identified Plaintiff as a possible suspect in the Fast Track robbery. (Dkt. # 27-11.) Defendant Curry based this suspicion on a prior investigation of a shooting resulting from a failed drug transaction in which Plaintiff was a victim, as well as Plaintiff's two previous arrests on gun and drug-related charges, all of which occurred at the Fast Track Gas Station. (Id.) Defendant Curry subsequently discovered that the vehicle described by Floyd matched a vehicle registered to Plaintiff's father. (Id.) Defendant Curry prepared a person of interest report (Dkt. # 27-12) and sent it to Sgt. Fulks and members of the Commercial Auto Theft unit. (Dkt. # 27-11.) The person of interest report included Plaintiff's full name, his race, sex, age, date of birth, height, address, and identifying tattoos. (Dkt. # 27-12.) The report also stated that Plaintiff was wanted on two outstanding arrest warrants.

         Defendant Craighead assigned Defendant Russell to the Sunoco Carjacking investigation on the morning of June 8, 2015. (Dkt. # 27-14.) Defendant Russell reviewed the reports provided to her, including the person of interest report prepared by Defendant Curry. (Id.) Defendant Russell then contacted Williams by phone to take an informal statement and, later that afternoon, a formal statement. (Id.)

         Defendant Schmelter, as officer-in-charge of the Citgo carjacking, also reviewed the person of interest report prepared by Defendant Curry. (Dkt. # 27-15.) Defendant Schmelter, relying on the identification of Plaintiff as a person of interest and recognizing the proximity between Plaintiff's home and all three crime scenes, began canvassing the area around Plaintiff's home. (Id.) During this canvassing, Defendant Schmelter discovered the Dodge Durango from the Citgo carjacking parked in front of a vacant property a mile and a half from Plaintiff's home. (Id.) Defendant Schmelter then communicated this discovery to other officers, including Defendants Craighead, Russell, and Cross-Nelson. (Id.)

         Defendant Craighead then authorized Defendant Cross-Nelson to prepare a photo array including Plaintiff for display to the witnesses. (Dkt. # 27-17.) Defendant Cross-Nelson had only Plaintiff's first and last name and, possibly, his date of birth. (Dkt. # 27-18.) Cross-Nelson entered the name “James Meeks” into the mug shot database, which returned three photographs. (Id.) Two of the photographs depicted Plaintiff, but the third depicted an unrelated individual named “James Meekslittle.” (Dkt. # 27-18.) The display does not include names, dates of birth, addresses, social security numbers, or the like - only the mug shots. (Dkt. # 30-13.) Mistakenly believing that all three photos depicted Plaintiff, Defendant Cross-Nelson added another mistake to the pile by choosing the photo of James Meekslittle. (Dkt. # 27-17.)

         Defendant Cross-Nelson then added five “filler” photographs taken from the mug shot database to complete the lineup. (Id.) When lineups such as this are printed, a “lineup composition report” is also printed on a separate page. (Dkt. # 27-2, Pg. ID 280.) The lineup composition report for this particular array identified the target as “James D. Meekslittle” and included his name, date of birth, social security number, and booking number, all different than Plaintiff's. (Dkt. # 27-20.) Defendant Cross-Nelson testified that he does not recall if he noticed the name discrepancy at the time or cross-checked the date of birth, but he believed the photo to depict Plaintiff. (Dkt. # 27-17.)

         That afternoon, Defendants Cross-Nelson, Craighead, and Russell showed the photo array to each victim of the Citgo carjacking. Two victims were unable to identify the assailant, but a third positively identified James Meekslittle. (Dkt. # 27-21.) Williams, the Sunoco victim, also positively identified Meekslittle as the assailant. (Id.)

         By 6:30 p.m. the same day, Plaintiff was arrested, transported to the Ninth Precinct, processed, and booked without incident by officers uninvolved in this action. (Dkt. # 27-2, Pg. ID 281.) A search warrant for his residence was secured and executed. (Id.) In an interview the following day, Plaintiff ...

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