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Gonzalez v. Yepes

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 9, 2019




         On February 25, 2019, Plaintiff Shawn Gonzalez, a convicted prisoner currently incarcerated at the Cheshire Correctional Center in Connecticut, filed a civil rights complaint pro se pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against four Middletown police officials in their individual and official capacities: Sergeant George Yepes, Detective Frederick Dirga, Detective Justin Lathrop, and Detective Mark Lemieux. Doc. 1 ("Compl.") at 2-3. Gonzalez alleges that the Defendants violated his rights under the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution by providing false statements in, and omitting material facts from, their affidavits in support of the warrants for the search of his wife's and girlfriend's residences and the seizure of various items therein. Id. at 3. The searches of the residences and the evidence uncovered led to Gonzalez's state convictions[1] for sale of narcotics by a non-drug dependent person, [2] criminal possession of a pistol or revolver, [3] and risk of injury to a child.[4] Gonzalez has appealed his convictions in state court, and the appeal remains pending.[5]

         On June 25, 2019, this Court issued its Initial Review Order pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, dismissing Gonzalez's Eighth Amendment claim with prejudice because (1) he was not a prisoner at the time of the alleged deprivation, (2) the allegations did not give rise to a plausible Eighth Amendment claim, and (3) any further attempt to amend the claim would be futile. Doc. 8 ("IRO") 15-16, 19. Although the Court concluded that Gonzalez's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment claims were barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), it gave him one opportunity to amend his complaint if he can "plausibly allege that his conviction has been overturned, expunged, or otherwise invalidated, or that the evidence collected from the challenged search was not necessary to his conviction." See IRO at 20.

         On July 19, 2019, Gonzalez filed an Amended Complaint, abandoning his Eighth Amendment claim but stating additional allegations and arguments in support of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment claims. Doc. 9 ("Am. Compl."). For the following reasons, the Amended Complaint is dismissed with prejudice.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW [6]

         The Court must dismiss a complaint "in which a prisoner seeks redress from a governmental entity[, ] or officer or employee of a governmental entity," that "is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a)-(b); Abbas v. Dixon, 480 F.3d 636, 639 (2d Cir. 2007). Although detailed allegations are not required, a complaint "must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S 544, 570 (2007)). "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." Id. This plausibility standard is not simply a "probability requirement," but imposes a standard higher than "a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id.

         In undertaking this analysis, the Court must "draw all reasonable inferences in [the plaintiff's] favor, assume all well-pleaded factual allegations to be true, and determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Faber v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 648 F.3d 98, 104 (2d Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, the Court is "not bound to accept conclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual conclusions," id., and "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do," Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Ultimately, "[d]etermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. at 679.

         Pro se submissions "are reviewed with special solicitude, and 'must be construed liberally and interpreted to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest.'" Matheson v. Deutsche Bank Nat'l Tr. Co., 706 Fed.Appx. 24, 26 (2d Cir. 2017) (quoting Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 474 (2d Cir. 2006) (per curiam)). See also Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) ("A document filed pro se is 'to be liberally construed,' and 'a pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'" (internal citations omitted)). This liberal approach, however, does not exempt pro se litigants from the minimum pleading requirements described above: A pro se plaintiff's complaint still must "'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Mancuso v. Hynes, 379 Fed.Appx. 60, 61 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). Therefore, even in a pro se case, "threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice," Chavis v. Chappius, 618 F.3d 162, 170 (2d Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted), and the Court may not "invent factual allegations" that the plaintiff has not pleaded, id.


         The factual allegations contained in the Amended Complaint are recounted below, recited in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff.

         Defendants Sergeant George Yepes, Detective Frederick Dirga, Detective Justin Lathrop, and Detective Mark Lemieux are all employees of the Middletown Police Department in Middletown, Connecticut. Am. Compl. at 12. Defendants Dirga and Lathrop submitted two affidavits[7] on April 27, 2017 and May 30, 2017 in support of an application for a search and seizure warrant to be executed at the Middletown apartment of Gonzalez's wife, Courtney Gonzalez, and the Meriden apartment of his ex-girlfriend, Baughnita Leary. Id. at 12, 35. Defendants Dirga and Lathrop also applied for a warrant to search a UHaul storage unit in Middletown[8] and for a tracking device to be placed on Courtney Gonzalez's car. Id. at 12, 35, 37-38. In the affidavit, Dirga and Lathrop claimed that Gonzalez had been the subject of a narcotics investigation over the course of several months and that they had arranged for two confidential informants ("CIs") to purchase cocaine from Gonzalez at both locations. Id. at 12-13, 35-38. The affidavit also stated that the CIs had communicated with Gonzalez via a cellular phone that Gonzalez had provided them. Id. at 12-13, 36. The Defendants never field tested the substances purchased by the CIs to determine whether it was, in fact, cocaine.[9] Id. at 13-14.

         Defendants Dirga and Lathrop omitted several facts from their affidavits. They failed to mention how much money they had given to the CIs, how much cocaine was purchased, or whether they had recorded any phone conversations between the CIs and Gonzalez. Am. Compl. at 13. Gonzalez also contends that the controlled purchases never occurred, and the CIs do not exist. Id. The Defendants' affirmations that they used CIs to make controlled purchases of cocaine from Gonzalez were false, and such "false statements were necessary for a finding of probable cause to the issuing judge, in order to obtain the search and seizure warrants for" the Middletown and Meriden apartments. Id. at 12-13. They also falsely stated that Gonzalez was the president of a local outlaw motorcycle club known as the "Dog Pound Rydaz," which was affiliated with the "Hells Angels," "Ruthless for Life," and other outlaw gangs in the area. Id. at 17, 35. Gonzalez's pre-sentence investigation report later stated that this claim was untrue. Id. at 17. Finally, the Defendants falsely stated that a canine had "made a hit" for the presence of narcotics at a UHaul storage facility in Middletown, [10] which Gonzalez believes was a ruse to seize his motorcycle. Id. at 15.

         On May 31, 2017, the Defendants executed a search and seizure warrant at the two locations. Am. Compl. at 14. No narcotics were found at the Leary residence in Meriden. Id. When the Defendants arrived at Courtney Gonzalez's apartment in Middletown, they searched for more than one hour without finding any narcotic substances until they decided to bring in a canine unit. Id. One officer said to the canine, "If you don't find nothing, you ain't getting no treat." Id. The canine handler then entered Courtney Gonzalez's bedroom, which had already been searched and, within mere seconds, found 3.6 grams of cocaine in a dresser. Id. Gonzalez contends that the Defendants had planted the cocaine for the canine to find. Id. at 14-15. The Defendants also found a digital scale in the communal basement of the apartment building, which did not belong to the Gonzalez family.[11] Id. at 15.

         During Gonzalez's criminal trial, the state never presented testimony from the CIs or any evidence to prove they existed. Am. Compl. at 13. The trial court denied (1) Gonzalez's motion for the state to produce a toxicologist report on the substances allegedly purchased by the CIs, (2) a hearing pursuant to Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154 (1978), to challenge the Defendants' statements in the warrant application, (3) Gonzalez's motion for a bill of particulars "to inform [him] on specific occurrences intended to be investigated [at] the trial and to limit the course of the evidence to the particular scope of the inquiry," (4) Gonzalez's motion to compel production of the police reports and other investigatory materials, (5) ...

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