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Niles v. Town of Wakefield

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 24, 2016

SIMEON NILES, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF WAKEFIELD and STEVEN SKORY, KENNETH SILVA, JOHN WHALEY and SCOTT REBOULET, all in their individual capacities, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS’ MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

JUDITH GAIL DEIN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

I. INTRODUCTION

The plaintiff, Simeon Niles, has brought this action against the Town of Wakefield and various members of the Wakefield Police Department in their individual capacities. It arises out of an incident that occurred on April 21, 2012, when the police responded to a report of an armed robbery in the vicinity of where the plaintiff was walking. The plaintiff was restrained at gunpoint, ordered to the ground, frisked, handcuffed, and brought to the site of the robbery. When the victims informed the police that Mr. Niles was not involved in the robbery, he was released. The plaintiff contends, however, that there was no basis to stop him at all, and that the actions of the police officers caused him significant physical injuries and emotional distress. Mr. Niles has asserted claims, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the individual police officers violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. (Count One). He further alleges that the officers are liable for assault and battery (Count Two), and false imprisonment (Count Three). Finally, he has alleged a claim of negligence against the Town of Wakefield. (Count Four).

This matter is presently before the court on the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. (Docket No. 33). The defendants contend that they are entitled to judgment on all counts of the complaint brought against them on the grounds that the plaintiff has failed to state a cause of action and the individual police officers are entitled to qualified immunity. For all the reasons detailed herein, the defendants’ motion for summary judgment is ALLOWED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Summary judgment shall enter in favor of defendants Skory, Silva and Reboulet on Count Two (assault and battery) and in favor of the Town on Count Four (negligence). The motion for summary judgment is otherwise denied.[1]

II. STATEMENT OF FACTS[2]

In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, which in this case is the plaintiff. See Vineberg v. Bissonnette, 548 F.3d 50, 56 (1st Cir. 2008). Applying this principle, the relevant facts are as follows.

At approximately 8:30 p.m. on April 21, 2012, a radio broadcast from the Wakefield Police Department went out to all units for an armed robbery at the Dunkin Donuts at 518 Salem Street in Wakefield, Massachusetts. It was reported that the suspect had a handgun and was threatening to shoot people. (DF ¶ 1). No other description of the assailant was given. Patrolman Whaley, Detective Silva, Lieutenant Skory and Lieutenant Reboulet all responded to the Dunkin Donuts location to investigate the armed robbery. (DF ¶ 2). Lieutenant Skory, the patrol supervisor, was first on the scene and he looked into the windows from the outside to see what was happening inside. (DF ¶ 3). He was followed soon thereafter by Lieutenant Reboulet, who also looked into the windows to see if the robbery was still in progress. (DF ¶ 4). It was not.

While he was standing outside the Dunkin Donuts, Lieutenant Skory observed a black male walking west on Salem Street approximately 50 yards from his location. According to Lieutenant Skory, this male was wearing a gray flannel jacket and a hat, and Lieutenant Skory contends that the man kept looking back at him. (DF ¶ 5). Lieutenant Reboulet also contends that he observed this man, and perceived that he was walking away from the Dunkin Donuts store. (DF ¶ 6). He further asserts that he regarded this individual as a concern since there were no other people around and the suspect in the robbery was reported to have a firearm. (Id.). The Officers do not report noticing any other suspicious behavior.

There is no dispute that at the time of these events, the plaintiff was walking in the area where the Dunkin Donuts was located. According to the plaintiff, he was wearing a black and gray checkered shirt and was not wearing a hat. (PR ¶¶ 5-6). He denies looking back at any officer and further asserts that there were a number of people in the vicinity. (Id.). He further denies walking away from the Dunkin Donuts, but states that he walked past the Dunkin Donuts on his way to a neighboring Irving Gas Station. (PR ¶ 6).

Lieutenant Skory advised the other units that there was an individual leaving the immediate area of the crime scene, and requested that someone stop the male party. (DF ¶ 7). At the time he made this request, Lieutenant Skory had received no description of the assailant from any source. Lieutenant Reboulet was aware that Lieutenant Skory had made the broadcast. (See Reboulet Aff. ¶ 8).

The employees at the Dunkin Donuts had fled, but two customers had locked themselves in the bathroom. (DF ¶¶ 8, 11). Once inside the Dunkin Donuts, Lieutenants Skory and Reboulet proceeded to the women’s bathroom and identified themselves. (DF ¶ 9). The two women had witnessed the armed robbery and were very distraught. (DF ¶ 10). The witnesses described the suspect as wearing black baggy pants and a gray jacket with a hat. (DF ¶ 11). They did not know if the suspect was black or white because he had something over his face. (Id.). In response to questioning, they stated that the jacket could have been gray flannel. (Id.). There is no evidence in the record as to whether the witnesses were asked the age of the assailant. It is undisputed that Mr. Niles was 66 at the time of the incident.

Detective Silva was in the area in his patrol car and had heard Lieutenant Skory’s broadcast about the suspect. (DF ¶ 12). He exited his cruiser with his patrol rifle and walked towards the Irving Gas Station, which is within yards of the Dunkin Donuts. (DF ¶¶ 12, 13). He looked inside the store at the gas station and saw a black male wearing what he believed was a black and gray checkered type jacket at the register, with his back towards the window. (DF ¶ 14). The plaintiff argues that he was not wearing a jacket, but was wearing a black and gray checkered shirt. (PR ¶ 14). It is undisputed that the plaintiff was the individual that Lieutenant Skory had seen walking down the street. (DF ¶ 15). According to the store’s video, Mr. Niles had entered the store of the gas station at 8:39:27 PM. (DF ¶ 16).

Detective Silva notified dispatch that he had the individual inside the Irving store and he went in with his patrol rifle. (DF ¶ 17). He entered at 8:40:51 PM. (DF ¶ 19). There were several customers, as well as gas station attendants, inside the store. (DF ¶ 18). Customers had been coming in and out of the store on a regular basis. (PR ¶ 6). However, the video indicates that at the time Detective Silva entered, no one can be seen wearing a solid gray shirt or jacket. (Def. Ex. G (video of the incident)). Mr. Niles was at the counter and appears to have been purchasing a lottery ticket from the store employee. (Def. Ex. G; Whaley Aff. ¶ 23). On the video, he appears to be calm and engaged in routine business. Detective Silva initially pointed his rifle at the floor in front of Mr. Niles and ordered him to the ground. (DF ¶ 20; PF ¶ 20; Def. Ex. G). He then pointed the gun directly at Mr. Niles and ordered him to the ground again. (Def. Ex. G). Officer John Whaley entered the store to provide backup for Detective Silva. (DF ¶¶ 21, 22). Detective Silva contends that he and Officer Whaley needed to instruct the plaintiff to get on the ground several times, and the plaintiff admits that he did not initially know that the order was directed at him. (DF ¶¶ 23, 25-27; PR ¶ 24). Nevertheless, the video (which does not have sound) indicates that the plaintiff obeyed the order within seconds and went down on the ground, first squatting, then kneeling, then extending his arms to lie on his stomach on the floor. (Def. Ex. G; PR ¶¶ 23, 25). Detective Silva and Officer Whaley contend that they continued to order the plaintiff to the ground because they had safety concerns, since it had been reported that the suspect in the robbery was carrying a handgun. (DF ¶ 27). It is undisputed that Mr. Niles did not have a weapon and was not displaying any weapon at the counter when the police entered the store. According to the video, as noted above, Detective Silva entered the store at 8:40:51 PM. (DF ¶ 19). By 8:40:59 PM, Mr. Niles was down on the ground. (PR ¶ 28; Def. Ex. G).

Detective Silva kept his gun out while Officer Whaley holstered his firearm. (DF ¶ 29). Officer Whaley put his knee on the small of the plaintiff’s back and pulled Mr. Niles’ right arm behind him. (DF ¶¶ 29, 32; PR ¶¶ 29, 32). The plaintiff claims that it felt like the officer’s full weight was placed on his back, and he felt stiffness, burning and numbness in his back and lower extremities. (PR ¶ 32). He also contends that Officer Whaley held his right arm behind him for over 30 seconds, which caused a dorsal/thoracic spine sprain for which he is still being treated three years after the incident. (PR ¶ 29). According to the plaintiff, while he was on the ground, and after twisting his right arm for approximately 30 seconds, Officer Whaley knelt on the plaintiff and twisted his left arm upwards and backwards throwing him onto his right side. (PR ¶ 33). Officer Whaley then twisted plaintiff’s right arm again, throwing him onto the left side. (Id.). According to the defendants, Officer Whaley was frisking Mr. Niles while he was on the ground. (DF ¶¶ 32-33). As Mr. Niles was being frisked, Detective Silva advised everyone in the store that an armed robbery had just occurred at the Dunkin Donuts. (DF ¶¶ 33, 34). While the defendants state that Detective Silva also advised everyone that the plaintiff met the description of the possible suspect, the plaintiff denies that this was said, and points out that a description from anyone who had actually seen the assailant had not yet been broadcast. (DF ¶ 33; PR ¶ 33). The entire search took less than one minute: Officer Whaley first made contact with the plaintiff’s arm at 8:40:59 PM, and Mr. Niles was standing on his feet, unassisted, by 8:41:52 PM. (DF ¶ 36).

Mr. Niles was not placed in handcuffs initially. (DF ¶ 37). Instead, he was ordered to place his hands above his head. (DF ¶ 39). Officer Whaley then held the plaintiff’s hands on top of his head while he frisked Mr. Niles again. (Def. Ex. G). No weapons were found. (DF ¶ 35). According to Mr. Niles, he was led out of the store by several officers, with Officer Whaley using his left hand to clench the fingers of plaintiff’s left and right hands together behind his head. (PR ¶ 40; Def. Ex. G). The plaintiff and the officers left the store at 8:42:29 PM. (DF ¶ 40).

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Skory had finished interviewing the customers in the bathroom at the Dunkin Donuts, and he arrived at the Irving Gas Station. (DF ¶ 41). According to the defendants, the witnesses’ description of the robbery suspect was very similar to that of the plaintiff. (DF ¶ 42). The plaintiff, however, highlights the differences. Thus, he argues that he was not wearing black baggy pants and he was not wearing a hat. (PR ¶ 42). He also states that he was not wearing a gray jacket, but was wearing a black and gray checkered shirt. (Id.). Finally, he points out that the witnesses did not specify the armed robber’s gender (or race). (Id.).

Officer Whaley asked the plaintiff if he had any identification on him, and the plaintiff stated he did not. (DF ¶ 43). Officer Whaley also asked the plaintiff where he lived. (DF ¶ 45). According to Officer Whaley, the plaintiff stated “380 Salem Street” and pointed east, which was not in the direction of that address. (Id.). According to the plaintiff, however, he stated “580 Salem Street, ” which was in the direction in which he pointed. (PR ¶ 45).

The plaintiff was placed into handcuffs and secured in the rear of Officer Whaley’s cruiser so that he could be brought to the victims at Dunkin Donuts for identification. (DF ¶¶ 46-47). Around this time, Lieutenant Reboulet located an employee of the Dunkin Donuts and began reviewing the available camera footage in order to obtain more information about what had occurred. (Reboulet Aff. ¶ 12). After reviewing the Dunkin Donuts video, Lieutenant Reboulet arranged to have a description of the actual suspect broadcasted. (Id.). The description included “. . . looks like blue jeans, kind of baggy, black sneakers, bulky gray or black sweatshirt with a hood.” (PR ¶ 44).[3] The plaintiff originally asserted that this broadcast was made by 20:49:52, before he was placed in the police cruiser. (Id.). Therefore, he argued that the officers should have known by that point that he was not the suspect, and should not have been placed in the vehicle. (See id.). At oral argument, however, plaintiff’s counsel conceded that the timing on the different recording devices was not synchronized, so it is unclear as to when, precisely, this broadcast was made. Nevertheless, it is undisputed that Mr. Niles was not released but, rather, the police requested an ID check from dispatch about Mr. Niles. (DF ¶ 44; PR ¶ 44). It is also undisputed that the police did not find any matching records for the plaintiff. (DF ¶ 44).

According to Mr. Niles, he was very uncomfortable and scared in the police cruiser, and experienced chest pain. (PR ¶ 46). He also states that he did not know when or whether he would be released or whether he was going to be held in custody overnight. (PR ¶ 48). He did know that he was being held because of the robbery. (Id.). He denied any involvement in the robbery. (DF ¶ 49).

The victims viewed the plaintiff while he was in the police cruiser, and told the police officers that he was not the person who had robbed the Dunkin Donuts. (DF ¶ 50; PR ¶ 51). The handcuffs were then removed and the plaintiff was told that he could leave. (DF ¶ 51). The plaintiff alleges that the officers detaining him had to be told several times that he was not the right person before his handcuffs were removed. (PR ¶ 51). He also contends that the handcuffs left scars and bruises. (Id.). While the defendants claim that the officers apologized to the plaintiff, he denies that any apology was ever given. (DF ¶ 52; PR ¶ 52).

At this point, the plaintiff was irate and accused the police officers of stopping him only because he was black. (DF ¶ 53; PR ¶ 53). There were some continued verbal interactions between the plaintiff and the police officers. (DF ¶¶ 54-56; PR ¶¶ 54-56). According to the plaintiff, one of the officers said in a belligerent tone, “[w]e are doing our job. If you don’t like it, you can talk to the lieutenant.” (PR ¶ 56). The officer then waved his hand in a dismissive manner and walked away, leaving the plaintiff alone in the darkness. (PR ¶¶ 56, 57). The plaintiff left the scene and returned to the Irving Gas Station at 8:59:35PM. (DF ¶ 59). He left the store at 9:04:59 PM. (DF ¶ 61). One of the store clerks drove him home. (DF ¶ 62). According to the plaintiff, whether it was visible on the video or not, he felt chest pain, numbness, and was sweating profusely. (PR ¶ 60). The pain was radiating all the way up his neck. (Id.). The plaintiff called 911 at 10:49 PM complaining of chest pain. (PR ¶ 63).

According to the defendants, the plaintiff did not have any contact whatsoever with Lieutenant Reboulet on April 21, 2012. (DF ΒΆ 58). The plaintiff contends that he is not sure which of the officers is Lieutenant Reboulet, ...


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