United States District Court, D. South Dakota, Western Division
JEFFREY L. VIKEN, CHIEF JUDGE
civil case originated in a tragic vehicle accident. Plaintiff
Oakley Engesser and Dorothy Finley were in a Corvette that
crashed into another vehicle on Interstate 90 near Sturgis,
South Dakota, on July 30, 2000. Ms. Finley was killed in the
accident. Plaintiff was convicted of vehicular homicide and
vehicular battery in South Dakota state court and served at
least 11 years in state prison before receiving state habeas
relief. Plaintiff now brings this action under 42 U.S.C.
§ 1983 seeking damages for constitutional violations he
alleges defendants committed in relation to the investigation
and prosecution of his criminal case. Defendants seek summary
judgment and plaintiff resists the motions. (Dockets 57, 73,
77 & 89). Defendants' summary judgment motions were
referred to Magistrate Judge Veronica L. Duffy pursuant to
the court's standing order of October 16, 2014, and 28
U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) for a report and recommendation
(“R&R”). The magistrate judge issued an R&R
concluding summary judgment should be granted on all claims
pertaining to defendant Michael Kayras and the Meade County
defendants,  but plaintiff's reckless
investigation claim against defendant Edward Fox should
proceed. (Docket 112). Plaintiff and defendant Fox timely
objected to the R&R and each filed a response to the
other's objections. (Dockets 115, 117, 120 & 121).
the Federal Magistrate Act, 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), if a
party files written objections to the magistrate judge's
proposed findings and recommendations, the district court is
required to “make a de novo determination of those
portions of the report or specified proposed findings or
recommendations to which objection is made.”
Id. The court may “accept, reject, or modify,
in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by
the magistrate judge.” Id. The court concludes
defendant Fox is entitled to qualified immunity on
plaintiff's reckless investigation claim and agrees with
the magistrate judge's disposition of the remaining
claims. Accordingly, the court sustains defendant Fox's
objections to the R&R, overrules plaintiff's objections,
and grants summary judgment to defendants. The court adopts
the R&R in part and rejects it in part, consistent with this
Plaintiff named seven defendants in his amended complaint and
alleged seven substantive counts. (Docket 15). The court
previously dismissed many of plaintiff's claims,
including all of his claims grounded in South Dakota law and
his claims against the state of South Dakota. (Docket 38).
The court summarized the surviving claims, which are all
brought under § 1983, as follows:
1. A substantive due process claim against defendants Fox and
Kayras for reckless investigation and manufactured evidence;
2. A procedural due process claim against defendants Fox and
Kayras under Brady for destroying evidence;
3. A Monell claim against Meade County;
4. A failure to supervise claim against defendant Kayras; and
5. A conspiracy claim against defendants Fox, Kayras and the
Meade County defendants.
(Docket 38 at pp. 37-38).
magistrate judge made extensive factual findings. (Docket 112
at pp. 2-23). Defendant Fox objected to portions of these
findings. (Docket 115 at pp. 4-10). Because the court
determines defendant Fox is entitled to qualified immunity,
many of these factual disputes are immaterial and the court
declines to settle them. See infra Section IV. Accordingly,
the court cannot adopt the R&R's factual recitation in
full. Instead, the court sets forth basic facts below and
discusses additional facts in the order where pertinent.
These facts are “viewed in the light most favorable to
the party opposing the motion.” Matsushita Elec.
Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574,
587 (1986) (quotation omitted).
30, 2000, plaintiff and Ms. Finley were driving in Ms.
Finley's Corvette on Interstate 90 when they crashed into
another vehicle. State v. Engesser, 661 N.W.2d 739,
743 (S.D. 2003) (“Engesser I”). The Corvette
was traveling approximately 112 miles per hour before the
collision. Id. at p. 744. A later blood test showed
that plaintiff's blood alcohol concentration would have
been approximately .125 at the time of the collision.
Id. at p. 745. Plaintiff was thrown from the vehicle
and found near the driver's side door. (Docket 99 at
¶ 3). Ms. Finley was found dead inside the vehicle.
Id. at ¶ 4.
disputed who arrived first on the scene of the accident.
(Docket 115 at p. 9). However, it is not disputed that a No.
of civilian witnesses and emergency medical personnel arrived
on scene before law enforcement. (Dockets 99 at ¶¶
6, 8, 10, 25 & 87 at ¶ 36). Paramedic Aaron Zimmiond
found Ms. Finley in the passenger side of the Corvette.
(Dockets 99 at ¶ 4 & 76-9). He instructed other first
responders to remove Ms. Finley's body from the Corvette.
(Docket 76-9). At some point before law enforcement arrived
on scene, the driver's side door of the Corvette was
opened. (Docket 99 at ¶ 8). Defendant Fox, a South
Dakota State Highway Patrol Trooper, and defendant Kayras, a
sergeant with the State Highway Patrol and defendant
Fox's supervisor, arrived on scene with other law
enforcement officers after Ms. Finley's body had been
removed from the Corvette. Id. at ¶¶ 5, 6,
& 10. Plaintiff was being transported to the hospital at that
time. Id. at ¶ 11. Defendant Kayras chose
defendant Fox to lead the investigation. Id. at
¶ 12. Defendant Fox took witness statements on scene
from several individuals, including Eric Eckholm and
Charlotte Delaney Fowler. Id. at ¶¶ 13,
25. Mr. Eckholm made a written statement in which he did not
state if he observed who was driving the Corvette. (Docket
61-2). Ms. Delaney Fowler did not write a statement.
Defendant Fox testified in a deposition for this litigation
that Ms. Delaney Fowler “did not see anything”
related to the collision and he did not ask her to write a
statement. (Docket 109 at p. 49).
the accident, defendant Fox arranged for the Corvette to be
impounded with a local facility. (Docket 99 at ¶ 34).
The facility stored the Corvette outside and uncovered.
Id. at ¶ 36. The facility allowed Ms.
Finley's family members to access the Corvette “in
order to find [her] identification card.” Id.
at ¶ 62. Ms. Finley's daughter, Becky Feist,
accessed the Corvette and apparently brought a wrongful death
suit against plaintiff. (Dockets 89 at pp. 11-12 & 99 at
¶ 63). Plaintiff asserts Ms. Feist “had a
financial interest in placing [him] behind the wheel.”
(Docket 89 at p. 12). Ms. Feist stated her brother found Ms.
Finley's purse on the passenger's side of the
Corvette. (Docket 99 at ¶ 63). Neither defendant Fox nor
defendant Kayras permitted Ms. Finley's family to access
the Corvette. Id. at ¶ 64.
enforcement expert, Rex Riis, examined the Corvette on August
23, 2000. Id. at ¶ 49. Mr. Riis removed the
passenger side sun visor from the Corvette because he
observed a gray hair on it. Id. at ¶ 56. He
also observed blood on the sun visor. Id. at
¶ 51. Mr. Riis did not test the hair because it lacked a
follicle and did not test the blood on the sun visor
“because he felt the forensic value to be low because
the blood was located where [Ms.] Finley's head would
have been.” Id. at ¶¶ 51, 57. The
state lost the sun visor after plaintiff's trial and it
is unavailable today. Id. at ¶ 60.
Fox interviewed plaintiff on September 13, 2000. Id.
at ¶ 74. He recorded the interview on a videocassette.
Id. at ¶ 72. The recording was sent to
plaintiff's trial counsel. Id. at ¶ 73.
That recording was the only video law enforcement possessed
concerning the accident or plaintiff's criminal
case. Id. at ¶ 75.
state indicted plaintiff on charges of vehicular homicide and
vehicular battery and he proceeded to trial in 2001.
Id. at ¶¶ 71, 77. The “sole issue at
the trial was whether” plaintiff or Ms. Finley was
driving the Corvette. Engesser v. Young, 856 N.W.2d
471, 473 (S.D. 2014) (“Engesser II”). No. trial
witness “testified to seeing the driver of the
Corvette.” Id. Defendant Fox testified he
concluded plaintiff was the driver. Id. The jury
convicted plaintiff and the trial court sentenced him to 25
years in prison. Engesser I, 662 N.W.2d at 745.
his conviction, plaintiff undertook a series of habeas
actions. See Engesser II, 856 N.W.2d at 474-78.
During these actions, plaintiff uncovered a substantial
amount of evidence tending to show Ms. Finley may have been
driving the Corvette during the accident. For example, Mr.
Eckholm testified he observed a woman driving the Corvette.
(Docket 99 at ¶ 89). Mr. Eckholm also testified he used
female pronouns to refer to the driver when he spoke with law
enforcement at the scene of the accident. (Dockets 58 at
¶ 91 & 99 at ¶ 91). Ms. Delaney Fowler testified
she did not see who was driving the Corvette at the time of
the accident but that she had seen Ms. Finley driving the
Corvette earlier in the day. (Docket 99 at ¶¶
94-95). She also testified that she believed she mentioned to
law enforcement on scene that a woman was driving.
Id. at ¶ 97. Two additional witnesses, Phillip
Syverson and Ramona Dasalla, testified in habeas proceedings
that a woman was driving the Corvette shortly before the
accident. Id. at ¶¶ 111-12, 115-16. Law
enforcement was unaware of both witnesses before
plaintiff's criminal trial. Id. at ¶¶
2014, the South Dakota Supreme Court, relying on the evidence
accumulated in his habeas actions, concluded plaintiff
established “no reasonable juror would have found him
guilty” of the criminal offenses for which he was
convicted. Engesser II, 856 N.W.2d at 484. This § 1983
case followed, alleging defendants violated plaintiff's
constitutional rights in the investigation and prosecution of
his criminal case and seeking damages. (Docket 1).
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), a movant is entitled
to summary judgment if the movant can “show 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). Once the moving party meets its burden,
the nonmoving party may not rest on the allegations or
denials in the pleadings, but rather must produce affirmative
evidence setting forth specific facts showing that a genuine
issue of material fact exists. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby,
Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986). Only disputes over facts
which might affect the outcome of the case under the
governing substantive law will properly preclude summary
judgment. Id. at 248. “[T]he mere existence of
some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not
defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary
judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue
of material fact.” Id. at 247-48 (emphasis in
dispute about a material fact is genuine, that is, if the
evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a
verdict for the nonmoving party, then summary judgment is not
appropriate. Id. However, the moving party is
entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the nonmoving
party failed to “make a sufficient showing on an
essential element of her case with respect to which she has
the burden of proof.” Celotex Corp. v.
Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). In such a case,
“there can be ‘no genuine issue as to any
material fact,' since a complete failure of proof
concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's
case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.”
Id. at 323.
determining whether summary judgment should issue, the facts
and inferences from those facts must be viewed in the light
most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita,
475 U.S. at 587-88. The key inquiry is “whether the
evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require
submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one
party must prevail as a matter of law.”
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52.
officials are immune from suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983
unless they have violated a statutory or constitutional right
that was clearly established at the time of the challenged
conduct.” City & Cty. of San Francisco, Calif. v.
Sheehan, 135 S.Ct. 1765, 1774 (2015) (internal quotation
omitted). Resolving questions of qualified immunity requires
undertaking two inquiries. The first asks: “[t]aken in
the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury,
do the facts alleged show the officer's conduct violated
a constitutional right?” Saucier v. Katz, 533
U.S. 194, 201 (2001). Second, the court must “ask
whether the right was clearly established.”
Id. A negative outcome to either inquiry results in
qualified immunity for the official. Pearson v.
Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009).
clearly established right is one that is sufficiently clear
that every reasonable official would have understood that
what he is doing violates that right.” Mullenix v.
Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308 (2015) (internal quotation
omitted). There need not be “a case directly on point
for a right to be clearly established” but
“existing precedent must have placed the statutory or
constitutional question beyond debate.” Kisela v.
Hughes 138 S.Ct. 1148, 1152 (2018) (internal quotation
omitted). The Supreme Court “repeatedly told courts . .
. not to define clearly established law at a high level of
generality.” Id. (internal quotation omitted).
“[T]he clearly established law must be particularized
to the facts of the case.” White v. Pauly, 137
S.Ct. 548, 552 (2017) (internal quotation omitted).
“The plaintiffs have the burden of showing that the law
was clearly established.” Estate of Walker v.
Wallace, 881 F.3d 1056, 1060 (8th Cir. 2018).
immunity is important to society as a whole[.]” Pauly,
137 S.Ct. at 551 (internal quotation omitted). Accordingly,
“[q]ualified immunity gives government officials
breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments and
protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who
knowingly violate the law.” Stanton v. Sims,
571 U.S. 3, 6 (2013) (internal quotations omitted).
“Officials are not liable for bad guesses in gray
areas; they are liable for transgressing bright lines.”
Ambrose v. Young, 474 F.3d 1070, 1077 (8th Cir.
Defendant Fox's Objections
magistrate judge recommended denying defendant Fox's
summary judgment motion as it pertains to plaintiff's
reckless investigation claim. (Docket 112 at pp. 41-49).
Defendant Fox objects to the factual and legal underpinnings
of this recommendation. (Docket 115). In particular, he
argues the magistrate judge erred in finding he violated
plaintiff's substantive due process rights by recklessly
investigating the circumstances of the accident and in
finding plaintiff showed the right was clearly established at
the time of the alleged violation. Id. at pp. 12-18.
The court agrees with ...