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Roberts v. Jon Doe Delta County Prosecutor

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Northern Division

August 19, 2019

JOHN ROBERTS, Plaintiff,



         I. Procedural Overview

         On January 26, 2019, Plaintiff, John Roberts, filed a complaint against the Delta County Prosecutor's Office, Michigan State Police Trooper Belonga, [1] Prosecutor Lauren Wickman, and the Michigan State Police (MSP), alleging a number of claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and, arguably, a state-law malicious prosecution claim. Roberts's claims arose out of a September 16, 2016, traffic stop of Roberts by Trooper Belonga and a subsequent criminal prosecution by Delta County.

         On March 19, 2019, Defendants Prosecutor's Office and Wickman filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) arguing that the Prosecutor's Office is not a legal entity capable of being sued and that Wickman, as a prosecutor, is entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity or, alternatively, qualified immunity on Roberts's federal-law claims and governmental immunity on Roberts's state-law claim. (ECF No. 14.) Roberts responded on April 9, 2019. (ECF No. 18.) Although Roberts did not file a motion to amend, he attached a proposed amended complaint to his response. On April 23, 2019, the Prosecutor's Office and Wickman replied, arguing that Roberts's new allegations in his proposed amended complaint do not suffice to avoid dismissal. (ECF No. 19.)

         On May 2, 2019, the MSP and Trooper Belonga moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) on the grounds that Roberts's claims against the MSP and Trooper Belonga in his official capacity are barred by the Eleventh Amendment, that Trooper Belonga is entitled to qualified immunity, and that the complaint otherwise fails to state a claim. In response, on May 17, 2019, Roberts filed his first amended complaint. (ECF No. 25.) On May 23, 2019, the Prosecutor's Office and Wickman filed a motion to strike the first amended complaint, arguing that Roberts filed the first amended complaint too late to qualify as an amendment as of right (at least as to the Prosecutor's Office and Wickman), and Roberts had not obtained written consent or leave from the Court before filing his amended pleading. (ECF No. 26.) On May 30, 2019, Roberts filed a motion to amend (ECF No. 29), as well as a response to the Prosecutor's Office and Wickman's motion to strike (ECF No. 30), arguing that the Court should grant his motion to amend. The Prosecutor's Office and Wickman responded to Robert's motion to amend on June 11, 2019 (ECF No. 34), arguing that the amendment is futile.

         Finally, on June 3, 2019, the MSP and Trooper Belonga filed a motion to dismiss the first amended complaint. (ECF No. 31.) Roberts has responded to the motion (ECF No. 38), and the MSP and Trooper Belonga have replied (ECF No. 39.)

         Given the existing procedural quagmire-with Roberts' first amended complaint being effective as to the MSP and Trooper Belonga but not as to the Prosecutor's Office and Wickman, and the MSP and Trooper Belonga moving for dismissal of the first amended complaint and the Prosecutor's Office and Wickman opposing Roberts's motion to amend-the Court will grant Roberts's motion to amend and consider his first amended complaint the operative pleading. In addition to deciding the MSP and Trooper Belonga's motion to dismiss, the Court will treat the Prosecutor's Office and Wickman's opposition to the motion for leave to amend on the ground of futility, together with their motion and supporting briefs to dismiss the original complaint, as their motion to dismiss the first amended complaint.

         For the following reasons, the Court will grant both motions to dismiss and dismiss Roberts's first amended complaint with prejudice.[2]

         II. Motion Standard

         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil 8(a), a complaint must provide “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Detailed factual allegations are not required, but “a plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief' required more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964-65 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47, 78 S.Ct. 99, 103 (1957)). The court must accept all of the plaintiff's factual allegations as true and construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Gunasekera v. Irwin, 551 F.3d 461, 466 (6th Cir. 2009). The court must determine whether the complaint contains “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. at 1974. “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). Although the plausibility standard is not equivalent to a “‘probability requirement,' . . . it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. at 1965). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than a sheer possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not ‘show[n]'-that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Id. at 679, 129 S.Ct. at 1950 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)).

         In general, in deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the court is limited to considering only the pleadings. See Rondigo, LLC v. Twp. of Richmond, 641 F.3d 673, 682 (6th Cir. 2011) (noting that “Rule 12(b)(6) scrutiny is limited to the pleadings”). However, without converting the motion to one for summary judgment under Rule 56, a court may also consider “any exhibits attached [to the Complaint], public records, items appearing in the record of the case and exhibits attached to defendant's motion to dismiss so long as they are referred to in the Complaint and are central to the claims contained therein.” Bassett v. NCAA, 528 F.3d 426, 430 (6th Cir. 2008). Thus, in addition to Roberts's factual allegations in the amended complaint, the Court may also consider the dashboard video from the camera on Trooper Belonga's patrol cruiser of the September 16, 2016 traffic stop-as Roberts refers to the video in the first amended complaint and the traffic stop is central to Roberts's complaint-and the transcripts of the December 8, 2016 preliminary examination and the February 3, 2017, circuit court motion hearing-as they are public records of court proceedings. See Buck v. Thomas M. Cooley Law Sch., 597 F.3d 812, 816 (6th Cir. 2009).

         III. Facts

         The following facts are taken from Roberts's first amended complaint, Trooper Belonga's dash camera video, and the state-court transcripts.

         On September 6, 2016, at approximately 6:20 p.m., Trooper Belonga was parked in his patrol car in the parking lot of a church on U.S. Highway 2 in downtown Rapid River, Michigan. The road at that point is four lanes, with a left-hand passing lane in each direction. As Trooper Belonga observed traffic, he noticed three vehicles traveling close together in the left-hand passing lane, including a silver sedan and a silver van. None of the vehicles was passing a vehicle in the right-hand lane or making a left-hand turn. Trooper Belonga pulled out of the church and initiated a stop of the silver sedan for driving in the passing lane.

         Roberts was driving the silver sedan, which was registered to the Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC). Trooper Belonga approached the passenger side of the vehicle as Roberts was attempting to exit the driver's side door. Roberts told Trooper Belonga that he had been following the silver van. Trooper Belonga asked Roberts if he would be willing to go back to Trooper Belonga's patrol car while Trooper Belonga checked everything out. Roberts agreed to go to Trooper Belonga's car. Soon after Roberts exited his vehicle, he told Trooper Belonga that his license had been suspended, and Roberts volunteered that he had been raided three times for providing cannabis oil. Roberts said that he did not have a medical marijuana card but he was using the ONAC card. Roberts retrieved his ONAC card from his vehicle to show Trooper Belonga, and he began to tell Trooper Belonga about making cannabis oil.

         Roberts got into Trooper Belonga's patrol car and Trooper Belonga proceeded to question Roberts. Trooper Belonga asked Roberts for permission to search the vehicle, and Roberts consented to the search. Trooper Belonga's partner, Trooper Lajimodiere, searched the vehicle and found two bottles of oil in the trunk. Trooper Lajimodiere also found a syringe with “Simpson oil” underneath the front passenger seat. Trooper Belonga field tested the liquids in the bottles and one of them tested positive for marijuana. Roberts told Trooper Belonga that it takes a large amount of marijuana to produce concentrated oil. Trooper Belonga took that oil and told Roberts that he would be doing a report. Roberts was released at the conclusion of the stop.

         Roberts was subsequently charged in Delta County with possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, a four-year felony. M.C.L. § 333.7401(2)(c). On December 8, 2016, District Judge Steven C. Parks conducted a preliminary examination to determine whether there was probable cause to bind Roberts over for further proceedings in the circuit court. The prosecutor presented testimony from Trooper Belonga regarding the stop of Roberts; the search of his vehicle; the field test results showing that the oil contained marijuana; and Roberts's admissions that the items belonged to him, that he had intended to deliver them to a woman in Mackinaw City, and that he created them. Roberts's counsel cross-examined Trooper Belonga on these issues. At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Parks found probable cause for bind-over to circuit court. (ECF No. 32-3 at PageID.257.)

         On February 3, 2017, Delta County Circuit Court Judge John B. Economopoulos held a hearing on two motions that Roberts filed. The first motion concerned the validity of the traffic stop, and the second motion requested amendment of Roberts's bond conditions to permit him to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. As to the first motion, Trooper Belonga testified about the circumstances surrounding the stop and was cross-examined by Robert's counsel. At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Economopoulos found that “Trooper Belonga did have probable cause to believe that the defendant violated a traffic law and therefore the decision to stop the automobile under those circumstances was lawful and reasonable.” (ECF No. 32-5 at PageID.289.) Before turning to the bond motion, Judge Economopoulos dismissed Trooper Belonga, noting that “this issue doesn't involve you.” (Id.) Judge Economopoulos then heard argument from Wickman and Roberts's counsel regarding the merits of the bond conditions motion and, for a number of reasons, including that Roberts did not currently have medical marijuana privileges under the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act (MMMA) and had a prior marijuana-related misdemeanor conviction, denied Roberts's motion to amend bond. (Id. at PageID.302.)

         Subsequently, after Roberts filed “more Motions to Dismiss and only after approximately three hours of oral argument, when the Court was at the cusp of dismissing the action . . . Delta county agreed to dismiss the charges.” (ECF No. 25 at PageID.138.)

         IV. Discussion

         As mentioned above, the Court considers Roberts's first amended complaint (ECF No. 25) the operative pleading and, therefore, will grant Roberts's motion to amend and deny the ...

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