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Meekins v. City of Oberlin

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth District, Cuyahoga

July 11, 2019

MATTHEW MEEKINS, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
CITY OF OBERLIN, ET AL., Defendants-Appellees.

          Civil Appeal from the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Case No. CV-16-869402

          Harvey Abens Iosue Co., L.P.A., David L. Harvey III, Matthew B. Abens, and Jason T. Hartzell, for appellant

          Baker, Dublikar, Beck, Wiley & Mathews, and Gregory A. Beck; City of Oberlin Law Director, and Jon D. Clark, for appellee.

          JOURNAL ENTRY AND OPINION

          EILEEN A. GALLAGHER, JUDGE.

         {¶ 1} Plaintiff-appellant Matthew Meekins appeals from the trial court's decision granting summary judgment in favor of defendant-appellee the city of Oberlin ("Oberlin" or the "city") on Meekins' claims of false arrest/imprisonment and malicious prosecution under 42 U.S.C. 1983 ("Section 1983"). Meekins contends that he was wrongfully arrested and prosecuted after the Oberlin Police Department failed to properly investigate false claims made by his son's mother that he had sent her threatening text messages and violated a civil protection order. Meekins contends that the trial court erred in entering summary judgment in favor of the city because genuine issues of material fact exist as to the city's liability under Section 1983. For the reasons that follow, we reverse the trial court's judgment and remand for further proceedings.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         {¶ 2} Meekins and Kimberlee George were involved in a relationship; in April 2015, they had a son. The couple's relationship deteriorated and Meekins filed an action in the Lorain County Juvenile Court to establish paternity and obtain visitation with his son (the "juvenile court case").

         {¶ 3} On December 30, 2015, George obtained an ex parte domestic violence civil protection order from the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas based on her claim that Meekins had sent her threatening emails on November 17, 2015 and December 29, 2015. The couple's son was also listed as a protected party under the ex parte civil protection order. A full hearing on George's petition for a civil protection order was scheduled for January 14, 2016.

         {¶ 4} On January 3, 2016, George went to the Oberlin Police Department and claimed that Meekins had violated the civil protection order by sending her screen shots of prior text conversations that they had exchanged. George indicated that she wanted to pursue criminal charges against Meekins. Two days later, George returned to the Oberlin Police Department and indicated that her attorney had advised her to file a police report regarding threatening emails she had allegedly received from Meekins in November and December 2015. George again indicated that she wanted to pursue criminal charges against Meekins. Patrol Officer Melissa Lett spoke with George on both occasions and prepared police reports regarding George's allegations. There is nothing in the record to indicate that Officer Lett ever spoke with Meekins regarding the allegations.

         {¶ 5} Officer Lett forwarded the police reports to the city prosecutor for consideration of the charges. After reviewing the allegations, the city prosecutor recommended charging Meekins with domestic violence in violation of R.C. 2919.25(C) relating to the email allegedly sent on December 29, 2015.[1] The prosecutor indicated that charging Meekins with domestic violence based on the November 2015 emails was "more problematic," noting that "the statute requires that the defendant knowingly believe that the offender will cause imminent physical harm." The Oberlin Police Department requested a warrant for Meekins' arrest on a charge of domestic violence based on the December 29, 2015 email.

         {¶ 6} The Oberlin Municipal Court refused to issue an arrest warrant based on the December 29, 2015 email, finding a lack of probable cause for a charge of domestic violence due to the absence of "imminent" harm.

         {¶ 7} Meekins denied sending any threatening emails to George. On January 7, 2016, the Lorain County Common Pleas Court rescheduled the full hearing on George's petition for a domestic violence civil protection order from January 14, 2016 to February 2, 2016 so that both parties could submit "all electronic devices in their possession * * * to an independent forensic examiner."

         {¶ 8} Meekins hired an expert to examine his cell phone and laptop in an attempt to determine the source of the email messages allegedly sent to George. The expert issued a report (the "January 31, 2016 expert report") in which he concluded that the Google searches and locations associated with the email account from which the threatening emails were allegedly sent to George "more closely related" to George than Meekins. The expert further stated that this fact, combined with the "lack of corroborating artifacts" on Meekins' electronic devices, strongly suggested that Meekins did not send the threatening emails. The January 31, 2016 report was shared with George's counsel and, two days later, George dismissed her petition for a domestic violence civil protection order.

         {¶ 9} On March 22, 2016, a final pretrial was held in the juvenile court case. It was recommended that Meekins be granted regular visitation with his son. George refused to agree to visitation and a trial was scheduled for April 14, 2016.

         {¶ 10} The next day, at approximately 11:30 a.m., George returned to the Oberlin Police Department and reported that she had received a series of texts, beginning on January 12, 2016 and continuing through March 16, 2016, from eight different phone numbers, the content of which threatened her and her son. George told Oberlin Patrol Officer Matthew Sustarsic that, although none of the phone numbers was Meekins' phone number, she believed the texts were from Meekins, who was either using a "burner" phone or was sending the texts by "spoofing" other telephone numbers, i.e., making the sender appear to be someone other than the actual source. Officer Sustarsic testified that George appeared "very frightened" and "very upset." He stated that George told him that she had pursued "other avenues * * * to try and get help" but "didn't feel she was getting any help" and that she "hadn't heard anything back" regarding the prior complaints she had made to the Oberlin police regarding Meekins.

         {¶ 11} Officer Sustarsic testified that George's allegations were "unusual" and "different" because (1) none of the numbers from the text messages were identified as being associated with Meekins and (2) they involved threats by an accused to his own child, which Officer Sustarsic had only seen once or twice before in his 20-year career.

         {¶ 12} Officer Sustarsic testified that he had no knowledge of "spoofing," that he had never previously handled a "spoofing" complaint and that he had had no training regarding "spoofing" or electronic evidence. He testified that he reviewed the police reports regarding the prior complaints George had made against Meekins and could not determine why no action had been taken on them. He confirmed that there is nothing in the police reports to indicate that anyone from the Oberlin Police Department ever spoke with Meekins about the emails he had allegedly sent in November and December 2015. Officer Sustarsic prepared a supplement to the January 5, 2016 report Officer Lett had prepared detailing the new allegations made by George. He made no effort to contact Meekins, no effort to otherwise determine whether Meekins had, in fact, sent any of the text messages at issue and no attempt to speak with Patrol Officer Lett regarding the prior allegations George had made against Meekins and the status of the investigation regarding those allegations.

         {¶ 13} Officer Sustarsic testified that because he was the sole patrol officer on duty at the police department that day - as was the case "about 60 percent of the work week or so" - he was unable to contact Meekins or otherwise investigate George's complaint, other than to ask Oberlin police detective Jessica Beyer, who was more knowledgeable regarding electronic evidence, to explain "spoofing" to him. He indicated that Detective Beyer "tr[ied] to look online and figure it out and explain it to [him]."

         {¶ 14} Officer Sustarsic stated that he believed he may have tried calling some of the numbers allegedly associated with the texts, but did not recall the results of any such calls and did not note the results of any such calls in his report. He likewise could not recall if he contacted the court to determine the status of any pending cases involving the parties, including with respect to the civil protection order referenced in George's earlier complaint. Officer Sustarsic stated that he did not ask to interview Meekins because it was not his "role" or "position" to interview individuals, that his "job is patrol * * * to take calls" and that he knows "what [his] boundaries are." He stated that, at the time, there was no day shift sergeant to serve as a supervisor, so "depending on the day," his supervisor would have either been Lieutenant Michael McCloskey or Chief Torres. Officer Sustarsic testified that he gave Lieutenant McCloskey "a brief rundown" regarding George's allegations, but did not recall specifically what he or Lieutenant McCloskey said. Lieutenant McCloskey testified that when George came in, Officer Sustarsic gave him a "heads up" that there was a complainant "up front" regarding Meekins, but that they did not discuss any details of the case.

         {¶ 15} Later that afternoon, before his shift ended at 3:00 p.m., Officer Sustarsic executed a request for an arrest warrant and three complaints charging Meekins with one count of domestic violence in violation of R.C. 2919.25(C) and two counts of aggravated menacing in violation of R.C. 2903.21(A). In these complaints, Officer Sustarsic alleged that, on or about March 23, 2016, Meekins:

• did, knowingly cause [George] to believe that [Meekins] would cause serious physical harm to a member of [George's] immediate family, to wit: G.G., in violation of Section 2903.21(A)(M-1) of the Ohio Revised Code;
• did, knowingly cause [George] to believe that [Meekins] would cause serious physical harm to the person or property of [George], in violation of Section 2903.21(A)(M-1) of the Ohio Revised Code;
• did, by threat of force, knowingly cause [George] to believe that he would cause imminent physical harm to her, [George] being a member of [Meekins'] family; in violation of Section 2919.25(C)(M-4) of the Ohio Revised Code.

         {¶ 16} Officer Sustarsic also executed an affidavit in which he stated:

1. I am a Police Officer for the City of Oberlin and was at all times pertinent to this matter.
2. Kimberlee George did state that she had received numerous threats to herself and her son, [G.G.]. The threats, to her wellbeing and mortality, are reported to have come from the father of her child [G.G.], Matthew Meekins.
3. Factual matters set forth in the report and supplements, if applicable, are true and accurate.

         {¶ 17} Once he completed these documents, Officer Sustarsic forwarded them to "records" for filing with the Oberlin Municipal Court. Officer Sustarsic could not recall whether he spoke with the prosecutor regarding the case before preparing the request for an arrest warrant. However, there is no evidence in the record that he did so. There is likewise nothing in the record to indicate that the documents were reviewed, or approved, by a supervisor prior to filing. The following morning, March 24, 2015, the request for an arrest warrant was filed with the Oberlin Municipal Court, attaching the complaints and affidavit Officer Sustarsic had executed the previous day. Officer Sustarsic could not recall whether the police reports or any other information was included in the "packet" submitted to the court with the request for an arrest warrant. The Oberlin Municipal Court granted the request, finding probable cause based on the information submitted to the court, [2] and issued a warrant for Meekins' arrest.

         {¶ 18} On March 25, 2016, the Oberlin Municipal Court granted another request for an ex parte domestic violence temporary protection order filed by George. Later that day, Meekins was arrested at the Ritz Carlton, in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was employed as the manager, and taken to the Lorain County jail. No one from the Oberlin Police Department attempted to contact Meekins or in any way investigate George's allegations prior to his arrest. Meekins remained in jail until March 29, 2016.

         {¶ 19} At his arraignment on March 28, 2016, Meekins pled not guilty to the charges. The municipal court judge who conducted Meekins' arraignment was the same judge who denied Oberlin's initial request for an arrest warrant in January 2016 and who issued the warrant for Meekins' arrest on March 24, 2016. Meekins denied sending any threatening texts to George and provided the prosecutor with a copy of the January 31, 2016 expert report. The prosecutor advised the judge that he had received "some developing information that may relate to [the] charges" and that "would * * * suggest" that the text messages at issue were not, in fact, sent by Meekins. He stated that he had not yet had time to evaluate the information and determine "if there's substance to it or not." In response to the prosecutor's disclosure, the municipal court judge recounted the history of the court's involvement in the matter and his rationale for issuing a warrant for Meekins' arrest:

I know the first round, we did not issue a warrant. * * * But when this second round came in * * * it seemed like an urgent-type of matter. Yet, if believed, I understood the statements that were read are of grave concern, and so the ...

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