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Glenn v. Hrgota

United States District Court, D. Kansas

June 26, 2017




         Plaintiff Chrystal Glenn filed this suit against Defendant Violeta Hrgota, a night response detective with the Kansas City, Kansas Police Department, alleging Defendant wrongfully detained her in violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. The matter before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 35). The motion is fully briefed and the Court is prepared to rule. For the reasons stated below, the Court finds Defendant is entitled to qualified immunity and grants summary judgment in Defendant's favor.

         I. Standards for Summary Judgment on Qualified Immunity

         Defendant moves for summary judgment under the doctrine of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity protects public officials performing discretionary functions unless their conduct violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”[1] Qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions.[2]

         As the Tenth Circuit explained in Rojas v. Anderson, [3] “because qualified immunity is designed to protect public officials from spending inordinate time and money defending erroneous suits at trial, ” the qualified immunity defense triggers a modified summary judgment standard.[4] The initial burden rests on the plaintiff, rather than the defendant; and the plaintiff must first “clear two hurdles:” (1) demonstrate that the defendant violated his constitutional or statutory rights; and (2) demonstrate that the right was clearly established at the time of the alleged unlawful activity.[5] The court may decide the appropriate order to consider these issues.[6]Only if the plaintiff clears these hurdles does the burden shift back to the movant defendant to make the traditional showing that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.[7]

         II. Factual Background

         The following facts are uncontroverted or viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff as the nonmoving party. In February 2014, Plaintiff lived in a house with her fiancé Jesse Hernandez, her three children (ages 13, 7, and 23 months), and her mother, Kathy Snoderly. Two other adults and four children also lived at the home.

         Shortly before 5:00 a.m. on February 19, 2014, Plaintiff woke to find her twenty-three month old son (“J.G.”) unresponsive and breathing abnormally. Plaintiff immediately alerted her mother, who performed CPR to resuscitate the boy while Plaintiff called 9-1-1. Police arrived at the home first. Emergency Medical Services (“EMS”) arrived shortly thereafter. Upon arrival, EMS crewmembers began performing CPR and other first aid protocol. Due to the severity of J.G.'s condition, EMS rushed J.G. to Children's Mercy Hospital for further treatment. According to Plaintiff, EMS did not ask her to accompany them and left before she had a chance to fully dress.

         At the relevant time, Defendant was assigned to the Kansas City, Kansas Police Department's night response unit. As a night response detective, her job was to respond to crime scenes, to direct police investigation, and to take witness statements from victims, witnesses, and suspects for all crimes except child abuse, child death, suspicious death, and homicide. For these crimes, Defendant must secure the scene, gather general facts, and page the Major Case unit. Major Case detectives direct the investigation of these cases and take recorded witness statements.

         At 5:22 a.m., after EMS left with J.G., Defendant arrived at Plaintiff's residence. Upon arrival, patrol officers at the scene briefed Defendant - a child without any known medical condition was rushed to the hospital.[8] Defendant then introduced herself to Plaintiff and questioned her about the circumstances surrounding her son's health conditions. Defendant observed the house was in complete disarray. Decaying food, cigarette butts, empty beer cans, and garbage littered the floors.

         At 5:32 a.m., a physician at Children's Mercy Hospital pronounced J.G. dead. Shortly thereafter, hospital staff called Plaintiff and asked her to come to the hospital. Plaintiff told the hospital that Defendant would not allow her to leave her residence. At the hospital's request, Plaintiff passed the phone to Defendant, who took the call outside of Plaintiff's hearing. At this time, hospital staff told Defendant that J.G. had died. Neither Defendant nor the hospital told Plaintiff that J.G. had died.

         Defendant paged Major Case detectives upon learning of J.G.'s death. To secure the scene, the household residents were not allowed to go the back of the house where the bedroom was located, and two uniformed officers were stationed at the door to prevent anyone from leaving the residence.[9]

         The Major Case detectives arrived on scene about an hour later, at approximately 6:40 a.m. Defendant left the residence shortly thereafter to obtain a search warrant. After the Major Case detectives took Plaintiff's recorded statement, she was allowed to leave at approximately 7:30 a.m. Plaintiff immediately proceeded to the hospital, where she found out her son had already died. An autopsy later concluded that J.G. died of natural causes.

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff alleges Defendant had no probable cause to believe that she had committed any offense when Defendant detained her for two hours and prevented her from being with her son during his last moments.[10] Defendant claims she did not violate the Fourth Amendment by detaining Plaintiff because she reasonably suspected that Plaintiff was involved in J.G.'s death.[11]Even if the detention was unreasonable, Defendant argues that she did not violate clearly established law, which entitles her to qualified immunity.[12]

         A. Constitutional Violation

         The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”[13] The Supreme Court has defined three types of police-citizen encounters:

(1) consensual encounters which do not implicate the Fourth Amendment; (2) investigative detentions which are Fourth Amendment seizures of limited scope and duration and must be supported by a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity; and (3) arrests, the most intrusive of Fourth Amendment seizures and reasonable only if supported by probable cause.[14]

         Plaintiff argues that the duration of her detention was unreasonable and entered the realm of an arrest.[15]

         Courts characterize investigative detentions as “limited intrusion[s] on the personal security of suspect[s].”[16] An investigative detention is justified “if the officer has a reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that criminal activity ‘may be afoot, ' even if the officer lacks probable cause.”[17] In comparison, arrests require probable cause to believe that a person committed a crime.[18] Arrests are typically “highly intrusive.”[19] The use of firearms, handcuffs, and other forceful techniques indicate an arrest.[20]

         The uncontroverted facts in this case, viewed in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, support the finding that this was an investigatory detention rather than an arrest. Police responded to a 9-1-1 call and entered the dwelling with consent. A child died unexpectedly. Defendant took statements and posted guards at the front door. None of the police officers ever touched or physically restrained Plaintiff. Plaintiff was not handcuffed and had access to her phone during the detention. Under these circumstances, Defendant did not effectuate a full custodial arrest of Plaintiff; she detained Plaintiff so the Major Case detectives could further investigate what happened.

         To determine whether an officer had reasonable suspicion to detain someone, the Court examines the “totality of the circumstances, asking ‘whether the detaining officer ha[d] a particularized and objective basis for suspecting wrongdoing'” at the time.[21] “[R]easonable suspicion may be supported by an ‘objectively reasonable' good faith belief even if premised on factual error.[22]

         Here, Defendant had a particularized and objective basis to reasonably suspect Plaintiff of wrongdoing. Defendant suspected that Plaintiff or her fiancé had committed the crime of homicide by smothering J.G. to stop his crying and screaming.[23] Plaintiff and her family had reported to Defendant that J.G. had flu-like symptoms the night before, was vomiting, fussy, and screaming throughout the night. However, Defendant observed a dry bowl next to the bed with no signs of vomit.

         Alternatively, she suspected J.G. was the victim of neglect due to Plaintiff's failure to provide details regarding J.G.'s care the previous day and the condition of the house. Cigarette butts, decaying food, empty beer cans, clothes, and trash littered the floors and surfaces throughout the home. Defendant also observed a disabled child wearing a diaper with overflowing feces. All of these facts led Defendant to believe that J.G. could have ingested something toxic or became ill due to neglect.[24] Given the totality of the circumstances, the Court finds that Defendant had a particularized and objective basis for suspecting wrongdoing on Plaintiff's part.

         Plaintiff urges the Court to consider the EMS report, the Children's Mercy Hospital record, and the other officers' reports, which all showed J.G. was not the victim of any physical abuse. The Court cannot consider these reports because the test for reasonable suspicion is what a reasonable officer could have known at the time.[25] None of these reports were available to Defendant at the time of detention. Officer Cobbins' report noted he arrived at the hospital at 7:17 a.m. and that J.G. had no signs of visible injuries.[26] Defendant had already left the residence when Cobbins made that observation. Furthermore, the EMS report, the hospital records, and the autopsy report were not available until after the detention ended. But even if Defendant was aware that there were no signs of ...

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