Federal Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against “Black Lives Matter”: Social Movements Can’t Be Sued

"Plaintiff … produced a Proposed Amended Complaint that not only fails to state a plausible claim for relief against any of the named Defendants, but that also attempts to hold a hashtag [#BlackLivesMatter] liable for damages in tort.  The Court therefore finds that granting leave to Plaintiff to attempt to file a Second Proposed Amended Complaint would be futile.  The Court also notes that Plaintiff’s attempt to bring suit against a social movement and a hashtag evinces either a gross lack of understanding of the concept of capacity or bad faith, which would be an independent ground to deny Plaintiff leave to file a Second Proposed Amended Complaint...."  Judge Brian A. Jackson, U.S. District Court, Middle District of Louisiana, September 28, 2017.

On July 9, 2016, during protests in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, following the police-involved killing of Alton Sterling, who was subdued and under police control (face down on the ground) when he was shot by police, the Plaintiff ("John Doe Police Officer") was injured by a shooter during the protests.  The complaint does not identify the shooter (maybe he was never caught), but the injured police officer blamed Black Lives Matter.

Officer John Doe's Proposed Amended Complaint for Damages failed to pinpoint how the named Defendants ("Black Lives Matter" and several leaders/members who appeared in media interviews) were responsible for his injuries.  Federal District Judge Brian A. Jackson dismissed Doe's cause of action.  His complaint failed to mention a gun or bullets traced to the named Defendants.  

The actions of the Defendants, as described in the complaint, were peaceful and Constitutionally-protected—appearing on news broadcasts to denounce police brutality, organizing protests, and live-streaming their arrests.  The Plaintiff's complaint sought to impose liability under theories of agency and "respondeat superior," which have been used to hold corporations liable for torts committed by employees, but the Court rejected those theories:

"Because 'Black Lives Matter,' as that term is used in the Complaint, is a social movement rather than an organization or entity of any sort, its advent on social media merely was a 'fortuitous creation of a community of interest'; 'Black Lives Matter' was not created through a 'contract of association' and is not an 'entity whose personality 'is distinct from that of its members,'" and therefore it is not a 'juridical person' that is capable of being sued.  Ermert v. Hartford Ins., 559 So. 2d 467, 474 (La. 1990) (quoting La. Civ. Code art. 24)."  

Instead of blaming the shooter or trying to identify the shooter, the Plaintiff sought to blame a social movement.  It's strange reasoning and perhaps why the Court was so concerned that the complaint could have been filed in bad faith.  The complaint, as drafted, attempted to extract compensation from the activists, which could have had a chilling effect on their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, expression, association—which are protected activities.  The Judge's Order emphasized:

"Civil liability may not be imposed merely because an individual belonged to a group, some members of which committed acts of violence."  NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886, 920 (1982).  

Indeed, attributing blame to a group for the actions of individual members is fallacious reasoning, especially where, as in Doe's complaint, the shooter wasn't identified.  Even assuming arguendo that the shooter had a connection to the social movement, the Constitution requires more than mere association before liability can be imposed on members who were not the shooter:

"For liability to be imposed by reason of association alone, it is necessary to establish that the group itself possessed unlawful goals and that the individual held a specific intent to further those illegal aims."  Claiborne, supra, at 920.  

The Court emphasized that, for liability to be imposed, the named Defendants had to have "authorized, directed, or ratified specific tortious activity."  The Plaintiff cited no proof that the named Defendants directed the shooter; indeed, they were live-streaming their own arrests at the time.  The complaint was incomprehensibly drafted and dismissal was appropriate.  

Marijuana: Seizure of Evidence

Under federal law, possession of even small amounts of marijuana is still a crime in the District.  Federal law enforcement can still arrest anyone for possession in D.C., although local law enforcement (the Metropolitan Police Department) complies with local decriminalization of possession of up to 2 ounces by a person over age 21.  But whether you’re 21 and under, or over 21, the government must not exceed constitutional prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures (whether seizure of a person or evidence of an alleged crime).  The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives enhanced protection to preserving the sanctity of the home.  Privacy in your home extends to all types of warrantless “searches,” whether the search is conducted in person by police, or through infrared technology.  Your privacy might even be protected from warrantless surveillance flights above your property, depending on how common such flights are, if you maintain a “reasonable expectation of privacy” from such intrusions.

You can voluntarily relinquish your Fourth Amendment protections by volunteering to let government and enforcement authorities into your home.  The main question in these cases is whether you voluntarily consented, or gave in to unlawful coercion.  If the authorities forced you to comply with an unlawful search, you may have grounds to prevent the evidence from being used against you. 

The circumstances of your case also impact the unlawfulness (or lawfulness) of the search.  For example, use of infrared technology does not mitigate the intrusion, Kyllo v. United States, 553 U.S. 27 (2001), and a surveillance flight over a covered portion of your acreage still requires a warrant in most circumstances, Florida v. Riley, 488 U.S. 445 (1989).  But the courts have allowed warrantless searches of garbage bags placed at the curb for pickup, asserting that the police did nothing more than what anyone on the street could have done lawfully, in California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988), and have allowed police to bring drug-sniffing canines into a private driveway to sniff the outside of the garage door, in U.S. v. Holley (5th Cir. 2016).  If the canine alerts police to the presence of contraband, warrants are obtained to seize the evidence in the garage. 

Even the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a strict constructionist of the U.S. Constitution, wrote for the U.S. Supreme Court’s majority in Florida v. Jardines, 133 S. Ct. 1409, 569 U.S. ___ (2013), that a canine sniff of a homeowner’s front porch was an unconstitutional warrantless search.  But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reasoned that a driveway is not a porch, because the private home life of the individual does not extend into the driveway, and that a drug-sniffing canine is not sense-enhancing technology (on the order of Kyllo).  Holley, supra.  Holley filed a petition for certiorari on February 3, 2017.  

Unusual circumstances in warrant execution and investigation also allow the government to chip away at the Fourth Amendment’s protections.  One of the most relevant for the marijuana debate is the use of illegally-seized evidence in sentencing, that is, even when the Fourth Amendment prevents use of the evidence to determine guilt, if other evidence exists that convinces a jury to find guilt, the illegally-seized evidence can be used to increase a sentence—in some cases, to the same extent as if the illegally-seized evidence had been admitted at the trial.  As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit emphasized:

[G]iven that disputed facts at sentencing need only be established by a preponderance of the evidence, see U.S.S.G. § 6A1.3, comment.; United States v. Herrera, 928 F.2d 769, 774 (6th Cir. 1991), rather than beyond a reasonable doubt, state officers now have the somewhat perverse incentive to rely more heavily on sentencing than trial to establish facts that may be of overriding importance in determining a defendant’s length of imprisonment—for example, the total amount of drugs involved in a criminal scheme.  As a result, sentencing has to a significant extent replaced trial as the principal forum establishing the existence of certain criminal conduct.  United States v. Nichols, 979 F.2d 402 (6th Cir. 1992). 

Relief was afforded to criminal defendants, however, in Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. _____ (2013), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that facts that aggravate the prescribed range of sentences to which a defendant may be exposed (e.g., such as possession of a firearm during commission of the offense) are not merely "sentencing factors" but "elements" of the offense(s) of which the defendant is accused, and, therefore, must be submitted to a jury and proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  

Therefore, if the admission of illegally-seized evidence during sentencing aggravates the permissible range of sentences (by either lowering the minimum sentence, or increasing the mandatory sentence), the sentence is an unconstitutional violation of a defendant's right to jury trial.  See Alleyne, supra.  

If you have an arrest record for possession of marijuana, you may be eligible to have the record of the arrest sealed.  The Criminal Record Sealing Act of 2006 opened a pathway to sealing for many former criminal defendants charged with “eligible misdemeanors,” such as possession, or felony failure to appear (the only “eligible felony”).

Foreclosure of D.C. Condo Lien Extinguishes First Mortgage

Residential real estate lenders are still reeling from the August 2014 ruling of the D.C. Court of Appeals in Chase Plaza Condominium Association v. JPMorgan Chase Bank, 98 A.3d 166 (D.C. 2014), in which D.C.'s highest municipal court held that foreclosure of a condo association’s “super-lien” (a super-priority lien for 6 months of unpaid assessments) extinguishes all junior liens, including a bank's lien for a first mortgage (or first deed of trust). 

JPMorgan Chase had argued that the condo association’s “super-lien” (which was enacted by statute in 1991 as an amendment to the D.C. Condominium Act) was entitled only to priority of payment.  But a three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals held that the “super-lien” was a true senior lien, which, under common-law principles of lien priority, extinguishes all junior liens in a foreclosure sale.

Reversal of the ruling is unlikely, despite the unease of banks regarding (1) the statute's lack of a notice requirement, until the 2017 amendment,* and (2) the assertion that the “super-lien” might be considered an unconscionably low purchase price for a condominium unit (the unit at issue was mortgaged for $340,000, while the purchase price was a mere $10,000; the amount of the super-lien was $9,415). 

JPMorgan Chase had argued that extinguishment of the bank’s lien under such circumstances would cripple mortgage lending in D.C., while the condo association had argued that it must be permitted to enforce its super-lien to prevent the condo community from falling into disrepair due to unpaid assessments.  As to such competing policy considerations, the Court of Appeals indicated it would take no position, deferring to the D.C. Council on matters of policy.

While Chase Plaza Condo Association did send notice of the scheduled foreclosure sale to the record beneficiary of the first deed of trust (Washington Mutual, a.k.a. WAMU), that interest was subsequently acquired by JPMorgan Chase.  The evidence is unclear as to whether the condo association knew that JPMorgan Chase had subsequently acquired the first deed of trust after WAMU filed for bankruptcy (apparently the issue of who succeeded WAMU as the beneficiary had been litigated extensively in the bankruptcy courts, and so JPMorgan Chase’s claim was on the public record). 

The condominium association would have faced practical difficulties attempting to send notice to a lienholder whose interest was unrecorded, in any event.  Constitutional Due Process does not require a party to do the impossible, that is, send notice to an unknown entity whose name and address are not "reasonably ascertainable through the exercise of reasonably diligent efforts."  Small Engine Shop, Inc. v. Cascio, 878 F.2d 883 (5th Cir. 1989) (citing Mennonite Board of Missions v. Adams, 462 U.S. 791 (1983)).  Furthermore, "state action" would have to be established for Due Process protections to attach.  A footnote in the Court of Appeals’ opinion questions whether the lack of a notice requirement in the Condominium Act might render that portion of the statute unconstitutional, either facially or as applied to JPMorgan Chase, but the Court declined to consider the issue since the parties had made no constitutional arguments in the trial court.*

The Court of Appeals opinion also expresses doubt that an association could waive its statutory right of priority by contract.  As the Court of Appeals observed, the Condominium Act, D.C. Code § 42-1901.07, states that “[e]xcept as expressly provided by this chapter, a provision of this chapter may not be varied by agreement and any right conferred by this chapter may not be waived.”  See Chase Plaza, supra, at 178.

* UPDATE: On February 9, 2017, the D.C. Mayor signed into law an amendment to the D.C. Condominium Act requiring among other things notice to a first mortgage holder before an association forecloses its lien for unpaid assessments. 

Waiving Miranda Rights Through Ambiguous Conduct

The U.S. Supreme Court held in the case of Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370 (2010), that a suspect in custody who has been read his Miranda rights must invoke his right to remain silent unambiguously.  That is, if he does not expressly state that he wants to remain silent, the police need not end the interrogation, and need not ask for clarification of ambiguous conduct that may or may not indicate that the accused wants to remain silent. 

On the other hand, if a suspect wants to waive his right to remain silent, he need not make a formal waiver.  Ambiguous conduct is sufficient to waive Miranda rights.  Thompkins, supra (citing North Carolina v. Butler, 441 U.S. 369, 376 (1979)).

Before a statement given after waiver of Miranda rights can be used against the suspect in court, the prosecution must show that the defendant voluntarily waived his rights, and that he knew what rights he was giving up.  Although the Miranda decision in 1966 emphasized that the prosecution had a heavy burden to demonstrate a knowing and intelligent waiver, a later decision in the Miranda line of cases stated that the "heavy burden" is no more than a preponderance of the evidence.  Thompkins, supra (citing Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157, 168 (1986)).

In Thompkins, the suspect was taken into custody and shown a piece of paper that contained the Miranda warnings (right to remain silent; anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law; you have the right to talk to a lawyer before answering and to have the lawyer present during questioning; if you cannot afford a lawyer one can be appointed to represent you before any questioning; you have the right to decide at any time before or during questioning to use your right to remain silent and to talk with a lawyer). 

The Thompkins suspect was asked to read the last warning out loud to determine if he could read and understand English.  The Court also noted that there was no basis in the case to conclude that the defendant did not understand his rights. Nor was there any contention by the defense that the suspect did not understand his rights.

The interrogation by police was skillfully done.  The suspect was silent for most of the three hours of interrogation, with limited “yeah,” “no,” or “I don’t know” responses.  Then the detective asked, “Do you believe in God?”  The suspect then admitted that he did believe in God, as his eyes welled up with tears.  The detective asked, “Do you pray to God?”  The suspect answered “yes.”  The detective asked, "Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?”  The suspect answered “yes” and looked away.  But he refused to make a written confession. 

The Court held that a "suspect who has received and understood the Miranda warnings, and has not invoked his Miranda rights, waives the right to remain silent by making an uncoerced statement to the police."  Evidently the Court believed that the suspect’s confession, as described above, was uncoerced.  The Court also emphasized that the suspect could have invoked his Miranda rights at any time, even after he had begun speaking.