In 1999, Elizabeth Pinkerton purchased two cats from Dianna Zinn. These cats were later found by Pinkerton’s veterinarian to be afflicted with fleas, ringworms, respiratory infection, and Giardia, a parasite harmful to humans and animals. Pinkerton’s daughter eventually became ill as a result of the diseased cats. The veterinarian told Pinkerton to contact the health department or the police department to prevent the spread of disease.
After the complaint was filed, Animal Control Officer Roy Yates inspected the home of Zinn, with her permission. Yates found Zinn’s home to be unsuitable for cats or humans. He found cats to be malnourished, with tails missing, open wounds and diarrhea. However, Yates’ primary concern was the possibility of a serious public health issue.
A search warrant was issued pursuant to Yates’ inspection. That same day, Yates and Chief Kerry Belk, the captain of the city police department, lead the search of Zinn’s home. They were accompanied by John LaCroix, a veterinarian hired by the City, and other officials. The search revealed feces on the floor and furniture, old and uncleaned litter boxes with flies, and diseased cats and kittens living in every corner of the home. The search also revealed litter being dumped in a public ditch near the home.
The city officials seized approximately 73 cats and kittens. After the seizure, Dr. LaCroix inspected the kittens and found that the cats had several problems, which included chronic upper respiratory tract infection, diarrhea, flea bite dermatitis, ringworm, ear hematomas, scratches, corneal scars and abrasions.
Zinn then filed a complaint against the City of Ocean Springs, Chief Belk, Yates and Dr. LaCroix. Zinn brought a claim under state law alleging excessive force. Zinn also brought a claim alleging a violation of her civil rights under 42 U.S.C. section 1983.
In 2005, the case went to trial. The trial court granted a dismissal of the civil matter on state law claims and a directed verdict on the section 1983 claims both in favor of the City, Belk, Officer Yates and Dr. LaCroix. MCOA affirmed.
When a judge considers a motion to dismiss under Rule 41(b) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure, the judge must consider the evidence fairly and dismiss the case if the judge would find for the defendant.
A. Search Warrant
Probable cause must exist for a valid search warrant to be issued. The U.S. Supreme Court in Illinois v Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (1983), said that in considering whether probable cause exists, the court must look to the totality of the circumstances.
Zinn claims that the search warrant was invalid for lack of probable cause because the affidavit was hearsay. Zinn incorrectly states that Pinkerton’s phone call was the basis for the affidavit. Rather, on April 6, 1999, the animal control officer inspected the home of Zinn after Pinkerton informed the health department of the conditions at Zinn’s home. Yates detailed the condition of the cats and the living condition in the affidavit, not Pinkerton, as Zinn claims.
Therefore, the observations of the animal control officer provided the basis for the probable cause and is not hearsay because he was merely reciting what he perceived.
B. 42 U.S.C. 1983
Zinn claims that she was deprived of her civil rights, privileges and immunities in violation of 42 U.S.C. section 1983 because the agents of the City of Ocean Springs misused their power under the authority of state law. Zinn contends that the agents damaged her personal property in the amount of $45,000, misdiagnosed her cats, and caused her stress and humiliation. Zinn argues that the raid on her home was “intentional and deliberate action taken by appellees to deprive appellant of her constitutional rights.”
To prove the agents of the City of Ocean Springs violated her rights, Zinn claims that her personal testimony and testimony from an employee of the animal control department of Ocean Springs, Officer Yates, was sufficient.
Section 1983 makes every person liable “who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1994). Local government units are considered “persons” under the statute.
“The constitutional deprivation, however, must have its origin in what can fairly be said to be a policy of the municipality.” The respondeat superior theory does not apply in actions against municipalities brought under section 1983. “Municipal liability based on the actions of city officials, exists only where it can be shown that the officials acted in accordance with an official government policy or firmly entrenched in custom.
In Monell v. City of New York Dep’t of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), the U.S. Supreme Court was aware that governmental agencies act only through natural persons and held that “these governments should be held responsible when, and only when, their official policies cause their employees to violate another person’s constitutional rights.”
The trial court held that Zinn failed to prove that she was deprived of a right secured by the Constitution and that the City of Ocean Springs inflicted injury upon her in the execution of governmental policy or custom. Regarding the agents of the City of Ocean Springs, the court held that Zinn failed to show that their “actions violated clearly established constitutional rights that a reasonable officer would have known.”
Zinn claims that her rights were violated under section 1983 because the government agents used excessive force and they should have known that the search warrant was invalid. As discussed above, the search warrant was valid.
Regarding excessive force, Zinn did not propound discovery or depose any witnesses to gain knowledge of the customs and policies of the state. At trial, Zinn did not call any witnesses to testify about violations of state policies or to testify that the state policies were unconstitutional. Zinn does not state any specific policies the officials were following nor does Zinn attempt to explain why these policies were unconstitutional.
The trial court did not abuse its discretion in holding that Zinn failed to prove that the government agents violated her constitutional rights. This issue is without merit.
Most of the time a § 1983 action is brought in federal court but you can see here that it can also be brought in state court as well.