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Date: 11-30-2022

Case Style:

Michael Baxter v. Louis Roberts, III and Trevor Lee

Case Number: 21-11428

Judge: Branch

Court: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on appeal from the Northern District of Florida (Leon County)

Plaintiff's Attorney:

Defendant's Attorney:

Description: Tallahassee, Florida personal injury lawyer represented Plaintiff, who sued Defendant on a civil rights violation theory under 42 U.S.C. 1983.

This is an appeal from summary judgment in a civil rights case arising from a traffic stop and arrest that took place in Northwest Florida on December 24, 2017. On that day, Michael Baxter was pulled over by Deputy Trevor Lee of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office for erratic driving. During the stop, Deputy Lee noticed an open container of beer and decided to issue a warning citation. Deputy Lee wrote—but never delivered—the ticket. Instead, a few minutes into the stop, he ordered Baxter out of the truck so he could walk his drug-sniffing dog around the vehicle. The encounter escalated. Baxter resisted Deputy Lee’s commands verbally and then physically. Once Baxter exited the truck, Deputy Lee arrested him for obstruction. Baxter suffered minor injuries. His truck was searched, but no drugs were found. The obstruction charge was later dismissed.
A couple years after this encounter, Baxter filed claims against Deputy Lee and the Jackson County Sheriff under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Florida common law. In his § 1983 claims against Deputy Lee, Baxter asserted that Deputy Lee violated his Fourth Amendment rights in four ways. Baxter alleged that Deputy Lee (1) initiated the traffic stop without justification; (2) unlawfully prolonged the stop to conduct a dog sniff for the presence of drugs; (3) arrested him for obstruction without probable cause; and (4) USCA11 Case: 21-11428 Date Filed: 11/30/2022 Page: 2 of 58 used excessive force in arresting him. Under a Monell1 theory of liability, Baxter asserted that the Jackson County Sheriff was also responsible for the constitutional violations he endured. In his state law claims, Baxter asserted false imprisonment and battery against Deputy Lee personally and the sheriff vicariously.
The district court granted the defendants summary judgment. It held that Deputy Lee was entitled to qualified immunity on the § 1983 claims and otherwise found that Baxter’s claims lacked merit. The district court got it mostly right—but not entirely. One aspect of Baxter’s § 1983 claims—whether Deputy Lee unlawfully prolonged the traffic stop—presents triable issues that preclude qualified immunity at the summary judgment stage. The same is true for two aspects of Baxter’s false imprisonment claim. In all other respects, the district court was correct.

* * *

On December 24, 2017, Michael Baxter stopped at a convenience store in Northwest Florida to buy gas and a beer.

After leaving the store, Baxter cracked open the beer, placed it in the cupholder, and kept driving. Around that time, Jackson County Sheriff’s Deputy Trevor Lee—who was on patrol in his K9 unit squad car—noticed Baxter’s truck. Baxter’s driving caught Deputy Lee’s attention because he was swerving and weaving within his lane of traffic.
3 Deputy Lee followed Baxter and pulled him over after he continued to swerve and weave.

After Baxter pulled over, Deputy Lee exited his squad car and approached the passenger side of Baxter’s truck.4 Deputy Lee informed Baxter that he had been “all over the road” and asked if he was okay. Baxter responded that he had been “trying to make a phone call.” Deputy Lee asked Baxter for his license, insurance, and registration. Baxter told Deputy Lee he “didn’t know” he had been “all over the road.”

At this point, Deputy Lee noticed the cracked beer can in the cupholder and told Baxter he could not have the open container in the vehicle.5 Meanwhile, Baxter handed over his license, but was struggling to find his insurance and registration. Deputy Lee told Baxter that he would let him “work on that,” and returned to his squad car. He called dispatch to run a records check.

Deputy Lee then returned to the passenger side of Baxter’s truck. Baxter handed over his insurance card. He kept searching for his registration, but said he “d[idn’t] know where [he] could see it.” Deputy Lee told Baxter to “hang tight” as he was going to write a warning ticket and then “walk my dog around the car.” Deputy Lee went back to his car and typed up what appeared to be a warning ticket for Baxter’s open container violation.

Leaving the warning ticket up on his computer—but without printing or delivering it—Deputy Lee walked to the driver’s side of Baxter’s truck. He instructed Baxter to “turn the truck off and step back here to me.” Baxter asked why he needed to exit the vehicle, and Deputy Lee explained that he planned to “walk[] the dog around the car” to sniff for drugs. Baxter questioned Deputy Lee’s “probable cause” to do so. Deputy Lee asserted that he needed none. For the next minute or so, Deputy Lee repeatedly asked Baxter to step out of the truck while Baxter repeatedly claimed that Deputy Lee had no justification for walking the dog around his vehicle. Baxter eventually complied. He turned the truck off, took the key out, and stepped out. Deputy Lee asked Baxter to hand over his keys, but Baxter said “they’re my keys” and clutched them to his chest.

At that point, Deputy Lee decided to arrest Baxter for nonviolent obstruction.6 In conducting the arrest, Deputy Lee grabbed Baxter’s arm, forced him to the ground, twisted his arm around, and placed him in handcuffs. Baxter suffered a chipped tooth and facial abrasions.

Shortly after the arrest, a sergeant with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office arrived. Baxter claims to have heard Deputy Lee tell the sergeant that he had to “charge [Baxter] with something” because he had “roughed him up.” A few minutes later, Deputy Lee walked his K9 around Baxter’s truck. The dog alerted, but Deputy Lee found no drugs inside Baxter’s truck.

Baxter was charged with nonviolent obstruction and ticketed for the open container. The obstruction charge was later dismissed. According to Baxter, after the December 24, 2017 incident, Deputy Lee twice pulled his squad car up behind Baxter, turned his lights on as if to pull Baxter over, but then just “cruis[ed] on by.”
Whoever shall resist, obstruct, or oppose any officer . . . in the lawful execution of any legal duty, without offering or doing violence to the person of the officer, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree. USCA11 Case:

B. Procedural History

In July 2019, Baxter filed a civil rights complaint against Deputy Lee and the Jackson County Sheriff in which he asserted claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Florida common law. In his § 1983 claims against Deputy Lee, Baxter alleged that Deputy Lee violated his Fourth Amendment rights in four distinct ways: by (1) unlawfully initiating the traffic stop; (2) unlawfully prolonging the traffic stop; (3) arresting him without probable cause; and (4) using excessive force during the arrest. Baxter also asserted Monell claims against the Jackson County Sheriff in which he alleged that the sheriff was responsible for the constitutional injuries he allegedly suffered.7 Finally, Baxter asserted common law tort claims for false imprisonment and battery against both Deputy Lee personally and the sheriff vicariously.

Following discovery, the defendants filed motions for summary judgment. In their respective motions, the defendants argued that all of Baxter’s claims lacked merit. Deputy Lee also asserted immunity defenses—qualified immunity with respect to the § 1983 claims and statutory immunity under Florida law with respect to the state law claims.
8 Opinion of the Court 21-11428

After the defendants moved for summary judgment, but before Baxter responded, Baxter took the witness statement of a former Jackson County Sheriff’s Deputy. In that statement, Cory Finch—who was Deputy Lee’s former supervisor—testified that he raised concerns about Deputy Lee conducting traffic stops without probable cause, but that, to his knowledge, no remedial action was taken by the sheriff’s office. Baxter attached Finch’s witness statement to his response to the defendants’ motions for summary judgment. The defendants moved to strike Finch’s statement from the summary judgment record because Baxter had not disclosed Finch as a potential witness prior to the close of discovery.

The district court granted the defendants’ motions for summary judgment and their motion to strike Finch’s statement. In granting the motion to strike, the district court found that Baxter had failed to timely disclose Finch as a potential witness and that the failure was neither justified nor harmless. In granting summary judgment, the district court found that Baxter failed to raise a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Deputy Lee violated his constitutional rights during the December 2017 traffic stop and arrest. As such, Deputy Lee was entitled to qualified immunity as to the § 1983 claims against him. Because it found that Baxter had failed to raise a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Deputy Lee violated his constitutional rights, the district court found that Baxter’s state law tort claims against both Deputy Lee and the Jackson County Sheriff also lacked merit. Finally, the USCA11 Case: 21-11428 Date Filed:
district court granted summary judgment in the sheriff’s favor on the Monell claims.

The district court entered judgment and Baxter timely appealed.

“The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials ‘from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). This is a two-part test. First, we consider whether the plaintiff can “establish a constitutional violation.” Grider v. City of Auburn, 618 F.3d 1240, 1254 (11th Cir. 2010). Then, “[i]f the facts, construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, show that a constitutional right has been violated,” we consider “whether the right violated was ‘clearly established.’” Id. The plaintiff bears the burden at both steps. Spencer v. Benison, 5 F.4th 1222, 1230 (11th Cir. 2021). Finally, “[e]ntitlement to qualified immunity is for the court to decide as a matter of law.” Simmons, 879 F.3d at 1163. But if, “at the summary judgment stage, the evidence construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff shows that there are facts inconsistent with granting qualified immunity, then the case and the qualified immunity defense proceed to trial.” Stryker, 978 F.3d at 773.

* * *

The Fourth Amendment protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. A traffic stop “constitute[s] a ‘seizure’ within the meaning” of the Fourth Amendment. Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653 (1979). A traffic stop is constitutional if the officer had reasonable suspicion USCA11 Case: 21-11428 Date Filed: 11/30/2022 to believe that criminal activity has occurred, is occurring, or is about to occur. United States v. Campbell, 26 F.4th 860, 880 (11th Cir. 2022) (en banc). “In other words, an officer making a stop must have a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the person stopped of criminal activity.” Id. (quotation omitted). “Even minor traffic violations qualify as criminal activity.”9 Id.

* * *

The Fourth Amendment imposes limits on the permissible duration of traffic stops. Police executing a traffic stop “do not have unfettered authority to detain a person indefinitely,” Campbell, 26 F.4th at 881, and “[a] police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures.” Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348, 350 (2015). That is, under the Fourth Amendment, a traffic stop “become[s] unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete [its] mission.” Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 407 (2005). In Rodriguez—the Supreme Court’s key precedent on traffic stop duration—the Court stated that a stop’s legitimate mission has two components: (1) “address[ing] the traffic violation” and (2) “attend[ing] to related safety concerns.” 575 U.S. at 354. The latter category—“related safety concerns”—includes a traditional set of “ordinary inquiries incident to the traffic stop”: i.e., “checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.” Id. at 355 (quotation omitted and alteration adopted). These checks are part of the stop’s mission because they “serve the same objective as enforcement of the traffic code: ensuring that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.” Id.

* * *

The permissible length of a traffic stop is the time “reasonably required” to complete its core tasks. Id. at 354–55. “Authority for the seizure thus ends when [the] tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed.” Id. at 354. Unrelated “detours” that extend the stop beyond that point violate the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 356–57.

* * *

We recognize five tasks within this stop’s legitimate mission: (1) issuing a warning ticket; (2) running a check for outstanding warrants; (3) checking Baxter’s license; (4) checking insurance; and (5) checking registration. See id. at 354–55 (noting that a traffic stop’s mission includes “address[ing] the traffic violation” as well as performing these “ordinary inquiries incident to the traffic stop”). Deputy Lee, however, undertook additional actions that were unrelated to the purpose of the traffic stop and therefore not part of its “mission.” Id. For one, conducting a dog sniff to search for drugs was not part of the traffic stop’s mission. Deputy Lee does not dispute that a dog sniff is a “measure aimed to detecting evidence of [] criminal wrongdoing” that is “not an ordinary incident of a traffic stop.”14 Id. at 355–56 (quotation omitted and alteration adopted). Further, Deputy Lee’s related order for Baxter to step out of his truck so that he could conduct the dog sniff was not part of the traffic stop’s mission. It is clear from the bodycam video—or at the very least, a reasonable jury could certainly find—that Deputy Lee interrupted his ticket-writing process, returned to Baxter’s truck, and ordered Baxter to get out of the vehicle to ensure officer safety while he walked the dog around the car. Thus, Deputy Lee’s order for Baxter to exit the vehicle is squarely a “safety precaution[] taken in order to facilitate [] detours” which are decidedly not part of a traffic stop’s baseline mission.15 Id. at 356. Because neither the dog sniff nor the order for Baxter to exit his vehicle were part of the traffic stop’s mission, those actions were justified only if they occurred “during an otherwise lawful traffic stop” but did not add time to the stop. Id. at 355, 357.

Outcome: Accordingly, after careful review and with the benefit of oral argument, we affirm in part, vacate in part, and remand.

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