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Freeman v. Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety

United States District Court, N.D. California

August 29, 2019




         Pending before the Court are two motions to dismiss Plaintiff Huedell Freeman's first amended complaint: the first, filed by Defendant Brandon “Jacy” Tatum and joined by Defendant Joseph Huffaker, see Dkt. Nos. 22 and 25 (“Tatum Mot.”); and the second, filed by the City of Rohnert Park (the “City”); Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety (“RPDPS”); David Sutter; and Brian Masterson, see Dkt. No. 26 (“City Mot.”). The Court held a hearing on the motions and took them under submission on August 22, 2019. See Dkt. No. 50. Having carefully considered the parties' arguments, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART Defendants' motions to dismiss.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Tatum and Huffaker, both employees of the City, used their position as Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety Officers to conduct unlawful traffic stops and to seize marijuana being lawfully transported to dispensaries pursuant to California Health & Safety Code §§ 11357 et seq. See Dkt. No. 17 (“First Amended Complaint” or “FAC”).

         According to the First Amended Complaint, in December 2016, Plaintiff was driving a rental car to deliver approximately 47 lbs. of marijuana, stored in several charcoal-lined duffel bags, to a dispensary in Southern California. FAC ¶ 17. Defendants Tatum and Huffaker were in a marked RPDPS patrol vehicle on Highway 101 near Cloverdale, California, when they initiated a traffic stop of Plaintiff for purportedly touching the fog line twice, and thus failing to maintain his lane under California Vehicle Code § 21658(a). Id. ¶¶ 19-20. Plaintiff alleges that the officers were far outside the City's jurisdiction at the time. See Id. ¶ 15. Plaintiff further alleges that his tires did not touch the fog line, and that this was simply a pretext to stop Plaintiff and conduct a marijuana investigation. Id.

         Plaintiff informed the officers that he was transporting marijuana to a dispensary, and Plaintiff further alleges that he showed the officers “all necessary paperwork that existed at that time to show he was transporting marijuana lawfully under state law, ” including the lawful origin and destination for the marijuana. Id. ¶ 21. During the stop, Defendant Huffaker contacted the dispensary, which confirmed it was expecting a delivery of marijuana from Plaintiff in the next few days. Id. ¶ 22. Defendant Huffaker also contacted Plaintiff's lawyer, who confirmed Plaintiff was a licensed marijuana cultivator in Mendocino County. Id.; see also FAC, Ex. D. Defendants Tatum and Huffaker nevertheless searched Plaintiff's vehicle and seized the duffel bags containing marijuana in the trunk. Id. ¶ 23. Defendants Tatum and Huffaker issued Plaintiff a citation for possession of marijuana, but no criminal charges were filed. Id. ¶ 24. And in response to a letter from Plaintiff's lawyer requesting that RPDPS return the marijuana, Plaintiff was informed it had already been destroyed. Id. ¶ 25.

         Plaintiff alleges that the City, RPDPS, and Defendants Masterson and Sutter were aware of and condoned such pretextual stops because of the revenue generated from civil asset forfeitures of marijuana and U.S. currency. Id. ¶ 28. Plaintiff further alleges that RPDPS rewarded officers for such tactics by promoting them based on the amount of revenue generated from the civil asset forfeitures. Id. ¶ 31.

         Based on these alleged facts, Plaintiff brings causes of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for (1) unlawful detention; (2) unlawful search; (3) violation of Plaintiff's due process right under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments; (4) violation of Plaintiff's substantive due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment; (5) municipal liability due to a pattern, policy or custom permitting abuse of police power, ratification of such policies, and inadequate training; and causes of action under (6) Article I, Section 13 of the California Constitution; and (7) California Civil Code § 52.1. Defendants contend that only the first cause of action is sufficiently pled against Defendants Tatum and Huffaker. See Tatum Mot. at 6; see also Dkt. No. 35 (“Opp.”) at 5.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) requires that a complaint contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). A defendant may move to dismiss a complaint for failing to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Rule 12(b)(6). “Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is appropriate only where the complaint lacks a cognizable legal theory or sufficient facts to support a cognizable legal theory.” Mendiondo v. Centinela Hosp. Med. Ctr., 521 F.3d 1097, 1104 (9th Cir. 2008). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a plaintiff must plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim is facially plausible when a 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 (2009).

         In reviewing the plausibility of a complaint, courts “accept factual allegations in the complaint as true and construe the pleadings in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Manzarek v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 519 F.3d 1025, 1031 (9th Cir. 2008). Nevertheless, courts do not “accept as true allegations that are merely conclusory, unwarranted deductions of fact, or unreasonable inferences.” In re Gilead Scis. Secs. Litig., 536 F.3d 1049, 1055 (9th Cir. 2008) (quoting Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors, 266 F.3d 979, 988 (9th Cir. 2001)).

         If the court concludes that a 12(b)(6) motion should be granted, the “court should grant leave to amend even if no request to amend the pleading was made, unless it determines that the pleading could not possibly be cured by the allegation of other facts.” Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1127 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc) (quotation omitted).


         As an initial matter, Plaintiff concedes that the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety is not a distinct legal entity, but rather an agency of the City. See Opp. at 1. The Court therefore GRANTS the motion to dismiss Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety as a defendant.

         A. Unlawful Search Claim (Tatum and Huffaker)[1]

         To state a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must show: (1) a deprivation of a constitutional or federal statutory right; and (2) that the defendant acted under color of state law. See West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988). Here, Plaintiff asserts a violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Supreme Court has held that police may conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle if they have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband. Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 162 (1925). “Probable cause to search is evaluated in light of the totality of the circumstances.” United States v. Brooks, 610 F.3d 1186, 1193 (9th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted).

         i. Sufficiency of Facts

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Tatum and Huffaker lacked probable cause to search his vehicle for marijuana in light of all the surrounding circumstances, namely that he provided paperwork about the lawful origin and destination of the marijuana in his possession; the officers confirmed with the dispensary that it was expecting a delivery from Plaintiff; and the officers spoke with Plaintiff's lawyer who confirmed he was a legal cultivator in Mendocino County. See Opp. at 3, 6-7; see also FAC ¶¶ 21-22. Defendants Tatum and Huffaker nevertheless move to dismiss this cause of action, citing the incident report attached to the complaint, which states that the officers smelled a strong odor indicative of a large amount of marijuana and Plaintiff initially said he did not know how much marijuana he was transporting. See Dkt. No. 37 at 1; Dkt. No. 25; FAC, Ex. C at 2-3.[2]

         At the time of the events in this case, California's Compassionate Use Act (“CUA”) had decriminalized possession and cultivation of marijuana for medical use, see Cal. Health & Safety Code § 11362.5, and California's Medical Marijuana Program (“MMP”) permitted qualified patients to form collectives for the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana. Id. §§ 11362.7-11362.9. When evaluating whether officers had probable cause to search, the fact that a person may lawfully possess marijuana under state law may be considered part of the “totality of the circumstances.” See, e.g., Allen v. Kumagai, 356 Fed.Appx. 8, 9 ...

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