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Cox v. Lang

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

November 15, 2019

WILLIE COX, JR., a/k/a ABBUE-JAH, Plaintiff,
v.
THOMAS LANG, Defendant.

          OPINION, MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          HENRY EDWARD AUTREY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court upon the motion of plaintiff Willie Cox, Jr. for leave to proceed in forma pauperis in this civil action. Upon consideration of the motion and the financial information provided in support, the Court concludes that plaintiff is unable to pay the filing fee. The motion will therefore be granted. Additionally, the Court will dismiss the complaint, without prejudice.

         Legal Standard on Initial Review

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2), the Court is required to dismiss a complaint filed in forma pauperis if it is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. An action is frivolous if it “lacks an arguable basis in either law or fact.” Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 328 (1989). An action fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted if it does not plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” 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.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief is a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw upon judicial experience and common sense. Id. at 679. The court must assume the veracity of well-pleaded facts, but need not accept as true “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements.” Id. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         This Court must liberally construe complaints filed by laypeople. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976). This means that “if the essence of an allegation is discernible, ” the court should “construe the complaint in a way that permits the layperson's claim to be considered within the proper legal framework.” Solomon v. Petray, 795 F.3d 777, 787 (8th Cir. 2015) (quoting Stone v. Harry, 364 F.3d 912, 914 (8th Cir. 2004)). However, even pro se complaints must allege facts which, if true, state a claim for relief as a matter of law. Martin v. Aubuchon, 623 F.2d 1282, 1286 (8th Cir. 1980). Federal courts are not required to assume facts that are not alleged, Stone, 364 F.3d at 914-15, nor are they required to interpret procedural rules so as to excuse mistakes by those who proceed without counsel. See McNeil v. United States, 508 U.S. 106, 113 (1993).

         The Complaint[1]

         Plaintiff states he brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Thomas Lang a police officer. Plaintiff does not specify the capacity in which he sues Lang. Plaintiff's cause of action stems from a traffic stop conducted by Lang on September 12, 2019. Plaintiff's allegations in support of his claim are best understood if directly quoted. They are as follows.

On 09/12/19 at approximately 1940 hrs. I was pulling off the Quicktrip lot when Mr. Thomas Lang shined his lightbar in my face and made a U-turn and pulled up beside my vehicle and said, “It looks pretty, but the lights are illegal and to turn them off.” I informed Mr. Lang approximately 3 times that the lights are not illegal in the State of Missouri. Them Mr. Lang said if you don't turn them off I am going to pull you over. I did not turn them off and he did pull me over. I informed Mr. Lang that he is in civil rights violation and he said that the municipal code I am in violation of. Mr. Lang then made a video or took photos on what appeared to be a personal phone. Mr. Lang then issued me the citation. Then I said to Mr. Lang, “I am going to take everything that you own for your violation of my civil rights and then Mr. Lang said, “Mr. Cox, do you want to know how to get out of one of these citations?” I then said to him, “No.” And drove away with lights on.

         Appended to the complaint is a document that reads: “Brief description of cause: Fiduciary duty violation, probable cause violation, illegal citation, no corpus delicti, no mens rea, no actus reus.” Plaintiff states that “the damage is that I know my rights and Mr. Lang acted unconstitutionally in violating them.” Plaintiff seeks a total of $1.0 million in damages.

         Discussion

         The complaint does not state whether Lang is being sued in his official or individual capacity. Where a “complaint is silent about the capacity in which [plaintiff] is suing defendant, [a district court must] interpret the complaint as including only official-capacity claims.” Egerdahl v. Hibbing Community College, 72 F.3d 615, 619 (8th Cir. 1995); Nix v. Norman, 879 F.2d 429, 431 (8th Cir. 1989). Naming a government official in his official capacity is the equivalent of naming the government entity that employs him. Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989), White v. Jackson, 865 F.3d 1064, 1075 (8th Cir. 2017). Based upon the allegations in the complaint, Lang is employed by a police department. However, a police department is not an entity subject to suit under § 1983. See Ketchum v. City of West Memphis, Ark., 974 F.2d 81, 82 (8th Cir. 1992) (entities such as police departments are “not juridical entities suable as such.”). Additionally, the complaint fails to state a claim of municipal liability. See Monell v. Dept. of Social Services of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 690-91 (1978). The complaint is therefore subject to dismissal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).

         Even if plaintiff had sued Lang in his individual capacity, the complaint would be dismissed. Plaintiff does not challenge the constitutionality of the applicable traffic law. Instead, he seeks monetary relief from Lang for violating his Fourth Amendment rights by pulling him over and citing him with a traffic violation. In support of this claim, plaintiff asserts that his vehicle's lights were not illegal.

         A traffic stop is legal under the Fourth Amendment if it is supported by probable cause to believe that a violation of the law has occurred. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 810 (1996); see also PPS, Inc. v. Faulkner County, Ark., 630 F.3d 1098, 1107 (8th Cir. 2011) (for a plaintiff to succeed on a Fourth Amendment unlawful seizure claim, the offending officer must have a lack of probable cause). Any traffic violation, even a minor one, creates probable cause for an officer to stop a vehicle. United States v. Gregory, 302 F.3d 805, 809 (8th Cir. 2002). A traffic stop can also be justified by a ...


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