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White v. Maurier

United States District Court, D. Montana, Butte Division

March 18, 2014

BRYAN D. WHITE and DEBRA BRECKENRIDGE, Plaintiffs,
v.
JOSEPH MAURIER as agent of the State of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, RICK SCHMAUCH, individually and as the agent of State of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, DANIEL MULKEY, individually and as agent of State of Montana Beaverhead County Sheriffs Department, SCOTT KESSEL, individually and as agent of State of Montana Beaverhead County Sheriffs Department, JAY HANSEN, individually and as the agent and Sheriff of Beaverhead County, BEAVERHEAD COUNTY, a political subdivision of the State of Montana, and JOHN DOES I-X, Defendants.

ORDER

DANA L. CHRISTENSEN, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiffs Bryan D. White ("White") and Debra Breckenridge ("Breckenridge") filed this action against Defendants, state and local officials and the political subdivision of Beaverhead County, Montana, seeking damages for alleged wrongful conduct arising out of White's receipt of two citations for waste of big game animals. The citations were issued by Defendant Rick Schmauch ("Schmauch"), a game warden for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, who was accompanied at the time by Defendant Daniel Mulkey ("Mulkey"), a Beaverhead County Deputy Sheriff. Jurisdiction is based on 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 28 U.S.C. § 1367. Before the Court are Defendants' motions for summary judgment. For the reasons explained below, the motions will be granted.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On November 20, 2010, White took possession of a cow elk carcass and the next day he shot a mule deer. He stored the two carcasses outside on a flatbed truck on his property in Lima, Montana, until December 15, 2010, when authorities cited White for waste of game and confiscated the carcasses.

Deputy Mulkey had received citizen complaints about the carcasses, including a complaint from the mayor of Lima. Around December 7, 2010, Mulkey observed cats and birds eating on the carcasses. On December 13, 2010, Mulkey contacted Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks Game Warden Rick Schmauch to inform him of the citizen complaints regarding the carcasses.

On December 14, 2010, Schmauch travelled to Lima and observed the carcasses from a public alley adjacent to White's property. The animals were laid on top of a flat bed truck and exposed to the elements. Schmauch took photographs of the carcasses. Schmauch showed the photos of the carcasses to a local meat processor who expressed concern regarding the carcasses' fitness for human consumption. Schmauch then met with his supervisor concerning the carcasses who concurred that the deer and elk appeared to be in a state of waste. Schmauch then met with Beaverhead County Attorney Jed Fitch to explain the situation. Schmauch showed Fitch the photos of the carcasses. Fitch agreed that probable cause existed to issue White citations for waste of game and asked Schmauch to issue the citations. Fitch presumed the carcasses would be seized.

On December 15, 2010, Schmauch and Mulkey traveled to White's house, knocked on his door and asked White to answer some questions about the carcasses. White alleges that the officers peered into the interior of his house after he opened the door. It is undisputed that neither officer ever entered White's house. After some discussion, Schmauch informed White that he was going to cite White for waste of game and seize the carcasses. White agreed to move his truck in order to assist the officers in accessing the carcasses. White then returned into his house and obtained a video camera to tape the encounter. Outside, Schmauch took more photos of the carcasses. Before Schmauch loaded the carcasses onto his truck, White retrieved a loaded foothold trap from inside the cavity of the elk carcass.

Schmauch then issued White two citations for waste of game. After completing the paperwork, Schmauch held the citations out to White. White attempted to grab the citations away from Schmauch, but Schmauch held onto them. White began to walk away. Schmauch then allegedly briefly grabbed White's shoulder, told White to "chill out, " and told White that he had to explain the citations to White. The time between Schmauch allegedly grabbing White's shoulder and the officers leaving the premises was between time 23 and 40 seconds.

The next day, December 16, 2010, Schmauch wrote a report concerning the incident and presented the report to the Beaverhead County Justice Court for filing. White was arraigned in Beaverhead County Justice Court on January 4, 2011. The Beaverhead County Attorney's office determined there was probable cause to prosecute White for waste of game. In June 2011, White was tried on both charges and a jury found him not guilty. Post-trial, White moved the Justice Court to return the animal carcasses. The Justice Court denied the motion and White did not appeal the order.

Out of this set of undisputed facts, White brings the following claims: (1) False Arrest and False Imprisonment, (2) Malicious Prosecution, (3) Civil Rights Violations Under the U.S. Constitution, (4) Civil Rights Violations Under the Montana Constitution, (5) Negligence and Gross Negligence, (6) Negligence Per Se, (7) Emotional Distress, (8) Acting in Concert, (9) Punitive Damages, and (10) Defamation.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R.Civ. P. 56(a). The movant bears the initial burden of informing the Court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted). The movant's burden is satisfied when the documentary evidence produced by the parties permits only one conclusion. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). Where the moving party has met its initial burden, the party opposing the motion "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but... must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 248 (internal quotation marks omitted).

III. ANALYSIS

A. False Arrest/False Imprisonment

Defendants move for summary judgment on White's false arrest and false imprisonment claim. Defendants assert that no arrest occurred and, even if one did occur, that the officers had probable cause for the arrest.

"[T]here are two components of a claim for false imprisonment: the restraint of an individual against his will, and the unlawfulness of the restraint." Kichnet v. Butte-Silver Bow County, 274 P.3d 740, 745 (Mont. 2012). "It is well-settled that a court's determination of probable cause is a complete defense to a claim of false arrest or imprisonment leveled against the charging party." Id.

The undisputed facts demonstrate that White was not falsely arrested or imprisoned. The basis of White's false imprisonment claim is that Schmauch briefly grabbed White's shoulder and then instructed him to remain in his presence while he explained to White the citations for waste of game. The time between the alleged touching of White's shoulder and his "release" was no more than 40 seconds. Even if this were enough to constitute an arrest, see Gonzalez v. City of Bozeman, 217 P.3d 487, 493-94 (suggesting otherwise), because the officers possessed probable cause to issue citations to White for waste of game, Plaintiffs' claim for false arrest fails. Kitchnet v. Butte-Silver Bow County, 274 P.3d 740, 745 (Mont. 2012).

Probable cause exists "where the facts and circumstances within an officer's personal knowledge prove sufficient to warrant a reasonable person to believe that someone is committing or has committed an offense." State v. Kelm, 300 P.3d 687, 693 (Mont. 2013). When determining probable cause, authorities "may rely on hearsay and other evidence that would not be admissible in a court." Hart v. Parks, 450 F.3d 10589, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006). Here, the officers reasonably believed that White had committed the offense of waste of game. White stored the carcasses outside on his flatbed truck for approximately 25 days. Neighbors and other citizens of Lima had complained about the carcasses. White admits that the carcasses were "chewed on" by unknown animals while in his possession. (Doc. 38-1 at 2.) Officer Mulkey had previously observed cats and birds feeding on the carcasses and relayed this information to Schmauch. Schmauch had photographed the carcasses and shown the photos to a local meat processor who expressed concern about their fitness for human consumption. Schmauch had also spoken with his supervisor and the county attorney who stated that probable cause existed for issuance of citations for waste of game. Inside the cavity of the elk carcass was a loaded foothold trap. The undisputed facts demonstrate the existence of probable cause for the issuance of the waste of game citations and reasonable minds concerning this issue cannot differ. Accordingly, White's claims for false arrest and false imprisonment fail because the existence of probable cause is a complete defense to a claim for false imprisonment. Kichnet, 274 P.3d at 745.

In addition, Montana imposes a two-year statute of limitations on false arrest claims. Mont. Code Ann. § 27-2-204(3). White's claims for false arrest and false imprisonment are based upon his interaction with Schmauch that occurred on December 15, 2010. White did not file his initial complaint until April 19, 2013. Thus, Schmuach's claims for false arrest and false imprisonment are barred by the applicable statute of limitation.

B. Malicious Prosecution

Defendants move for summary judgment on Plaintiffs' claim for malicious prosecution. Defendants contend that Plaintiffs' claim for malicious prosecution fails because the officers had probable cause to issue the citations for waste of game and also because Plaintiffs lack any evidence that White's prosecution was motivated by malice.

To prevail on a claim of malicious prosecution requires a plaintiff to prove the following essential elements: (1) a judicial proceeding was commenced and prosecuted against the plaintiff; (2) the defendant was responsible for instigating, prosecuting or continuing such proceeding; (3) there was a lack of probable cause for the defendant's acts; (4) the defendant was actuated by malice; (5) the judicial proceeding terminated favorably for plaintiff; and (6) the plaintiff suffered damage. Blacktail Mountain Ranch, Co., L.L.C. v. State, Dept. of Nat. Resources and Conserv., 220 P.3d 388, 390 (Mont. 2009). Because, as explained above, the officers had probable cause, Plaintiffs' malicious prosecution claim fails.

C. Civil Rights Violations under the U.S. Constitution

Defendants move for summary judgment on all of Plaintiffs' § 1983 claims. Defendants assert that they are entitled to qualified immunity. Alternatively, Defendants assert that all of Plaintiffs' claims fail as a matter of law because Plaintiffs lack evidence sufficient to support any § ...


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