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Case 3:13-cv-00278-HEH-MHL Document 87 Filed 01/23/14 Page 1 of 16 PageID# 974

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA

Richmond Division

PETER WILLIS,

Plaintiff,

v.

KENNETH BLEVINS, JR.,

Defendant.

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Civil Action No. 3:13CV278-HEH

MEMORANDUM OPINION

(Granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment)

This is a civil rights action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Kenneth

Blevins, Jr. ("Lt. Blevins"), an officer with the Town of Colonial Beach Police

Department. The Complaint, as originally filed, contained a broad array of allegations

against law enforcement and public officials based in Westmoreland County, Virginia

and the Town of Colonial Beach. Other defendants were pruned from the case pursuant

to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to plead a plausible claim. The

case is presently before the Court on Lt. Blevins' Motion for Summary Judgment.'

Although both parties filed memoranda explainingtheir position, only the defendant

provided supporting exhibits.

1The Court will dispense with oral argument because the facts and legal contentions are
adequately presented in the materials before the Court and argument would not aid in the
decisional process.

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After a careful review of the evidence, as detailed below, the Court is of the

opinion that Plaintiff can advance no factual basis to support his contentions and that Lt.

Blevins is entitled to either qualified immunity or dismissal on other grounds.

The claims against Lt. Blevins evolve from an incident that occurred on March 8,

2011 between the Plaintiff, Peter Willis ("Willis"), and Carey Groendal ("Groendal").

From the evidence offered in support of summary judgment, it appears that Willis and

Groendal, who was separated from her husband, were involved in a tumultuous personal

relationship. As a result of a physical altercation that occurred on March 8, 2011, Willis

was arrested on March 15, 2011 on a warrant charging attempted first degree murder,

aggravated malicious wounding, and abduction ofGroendal.2 The day following the

incident, Groendal was taken to Mary Washington Hospital for treatment of head injuries.

(Def.'s Mem. Support Mot. Summ. J., Carey Groendal, Blevins Aff. Ex. Fat 20:5-17.3)

The grandjury indicted Willis on all three charges on July 28, 2011.

Willis was incarcerated for 349 days in the Northern Neck Regional Jail before a

Westmoreland County Circuit Courtjury acquitted him on May 8, 2012. Lt. Blevins

conducted the investigation of the underlying incident, acquired a warrant for Willis'

arrest and provided extensive testimony at his preliminary hearing and trial. The arrest

and charges against Willis were largely based on Groendal's statements about the events

2Willis does not contest the existence of probable cause for his arrest on the abduction charge.
(PL's Mem. Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. 12 n.10.)
3Attached to Defendant's Memorandum in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment is Lt.
Blevins' affidavit with additional exhibits appended (ECF Nos. 80-1, 80-2). The various exhibits
include affidavits and interview transcripts from several individuals, including the victim, her
children, and police officers. The Court will cite these documents by the individual's name.
Trial transcripts are also included in the appended exhibits and will be cited by document title.

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of March 8, 2011, coupled with interviews of her minor children present at the house that

day,4 and examination ofphysical evidence recovered.

The overarching theme of Willis' complaint is that Lt. Blevins and the Assistant

Commonwealth's Attorney for Westmoreland County conspired to fabricate physical

evidence and present perjured testimony at his preliminary hearing and trial. Willis

contends that Lt. Blevins engaged in numerous acts of misconduct during the

investigation and subsequent prosecution. These include failing to conduct a full

investigation, obtaining an arrest warrant without probable cause, fabricating evidence,

and testifying untruthfully. Willis, however, is unable to marshal any significant

evidence to support his serious contentions.

Willis' complaint asserts four 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims against Lt. Blevins. These

include: (1) false arrest; (2) malicious prosecution; (3) fabrication of evidence; and (4)

conspiracy to fabricate evidence. Distilled to its essence, Willis accuses Lt. Blevins,

acting in concert with the assistant commonwealth's attorney, of committing perjury, not

only in presenting evidence at trial, but also in obtaining the initial warrant for his arrest.

The standard for review of summary judgment motions is well established in the

Fourth Circuit. Summary judgment is appropriate only if the record shows "there is no

genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a

matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The evidentiary basis on which such motions are

4Groendal's children were present inthe residence when the incident occurred, but were located
downstairs, removed from the events at issue. Although of minimal value, their interviews were
generally consistent in material part with Groendal's version. {See generally Abigail Groendal,
Blevins Aff. Ex. C; Todd Groendal, Blevins Aff. Ex. D.)

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resolved include pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions on file,

together with affidavits, ifany. Id.5 As the United States Supreme Court pointed out in

Anderson v. LibertyLobby, Inc., the relevant inquiry in a summary judgment analysis 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." 477 U.S.

242, 251-52 (1986). In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court must view

the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party—here, Willis. Id. at 255.

Once a motion for summary judgment is properly made and supported, the

opposing party has the burden of showing that a genuine dispute exists. Matsushita Elec.

Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986). "[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 thattherebe nogenuine

issue ofmaterial fact." Anderson, All U.S. at 247-48 (emphasis in original). The court

mustgrant summary judgment if the nonmoving party "fails to make a showing sufficient

to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that

party will bear the burden of proofat trial." Celotox Corp. v. Catrett, All U.S. 317, 322

(1986). To defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment, the

nonmoving party must rely on more than conclusory allegations, "mere speculation or the

building of one inference upon another," the "mere existence of a scintilla of evidence,"

5In his opposition memorandum, Willis challenges Lt. Blevins' reliance on his own affidavit and
the attached authenticated documents and exhibits as evidence. Obviously, sworn affidavits are
competent sources of proof under Rule 56(c). The accompanying documents, most of which are
properly attested, corroborate Lt. Blevins' statements. It is also interesting to point out that in his
memorandum, Willis relies on a number of exhibits to which he also notes his objection.

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or the appearance of some "metaphysical doubt" concerning a material fact. Stone v.

Liberty, 105 F.3d 188, 191 (4th Cir. 1997) (citations omitted); Matsushita Elec. Indus.

Co., 475 U.S. at 586. In meeting this burden, the nonmoving party must "go beyond the

pleadings" and present affidavits or designate specific facts in depositions, answerto

interrogatories, and admissions on file to establish a genuine issue of material fact.

Celotox Corp., All U.S. at 324.

A material fact is one that might affect the outcome of a party's case. Anderson,

All U.S. at 248; JKCHolding Co. LLCv. Wash. Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465

(4th Cir. 2001). A "genuine" issue concerning a material fact only arises when the

evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, is sufficient to

warrant a reasonable jury to return a verdict in that party's favor. Anderson, All U.S. at

248.

Lt. Blevins approaches his motion for summaryjudgment on several fronts. First,

he points out that the arrest of Willis was premised on a warrant issued by the magistrate

based on his recitation of the evidence garnered from Groendal and the alleged crime

scene. Moreover, according to Lt. Blevins, he took the additional step of conferring with

and receiving authorization from the commonwealth's attorney before obtaining the

warrant. Next, he points to the absence of any substantive evidence to support Willis'

allegation of fabrication and perjury. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Lt. Blevins

alleges that he is entitled to qualified immunity.

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Qualified immunity "[s]hields [officials] from civil damages liability as long as

their actions could reasonably have been thought consistent with the rights they are

alleged to have violated." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 638 (1987).

To determine whether Willis' claims can survive a qualified immunity-based

challenge, the Court will follow the two-step inquiry laid out in Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S.

194,201-02 (2001). This analytical framework requires the court to determine initially

whether there has been a constitutional violation, and second, whether the right violated

was clearly established. Id.; see also Melgar v. Greene, 593 F.3d 348, 353 (4th Cir.

2010).

As Lt. Blevins notes in his memorandum, a police officer is typically entitled to

qualified immunity when a claim for false arrest is based on a facially-valid arrest

warrant issued by a magistrate. Porterfieldv. Lott, 156 F.3d 563, 568 (4th Cir. 1998).

The scopeof this immunity is amplified somewhat by the teachings ofMalley v. Briggs.

475 U.S. 335 (1986). Generally, a law enforcement officer obtaining a warrant from a

magistrate prior to arrest is entitled to qualified immunity unless "the warrant application

is so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence

unreasonable." Id. at 344-45. Equally instructive are the comments of Chief Judge

Traxler in John Doe v. Broderick:

"Qualified immunity thus provides a 'safe-harbor' from tort damages for
police officers performing objectively reasonable actions in furtherance of
their duties." This "safe-harbor" ensures that officers will not be liable for
"bad guesses in gray areas" but only for "transgressing bright lines." Of
course, officers are not afforded protection when they are "plainly
incompetent or ... knowingly violate the law." But, in gray areas, where
the law is unsettled or murky, qualified immunity affords protection to an

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officer who takes an action that is not clearly forbidden —even if the action
is later deemed wrongful. Simply put, qualified immunity exists to protect
those officers who reasonably believe that their actions do not violate
federal law.

225 F.3d 440, 453 (4th Cir. 2002) (emphasis in original) (citations omitted).

Willis appears to concede that the only evidence in the record revealing the

information that Lt. Blevins presented to the magistrate is contained in his sworn affidavit

which accompanied this motion. In his affidavit, Lt. Blevins states:

I conducted a detailed interview of Mrs. Groendal, during which she
described, among other things, Peter Willis restraining her against her will,
burning her knuckle with a cigarette, attempting to drown her in a bathtub,
and striking her head against the wall at least once. I outlined Mrs.
Groendal's statements in my Police Investigative Report [], a true and
accurate copy of which is attached as Exhibit A.

(Blevins Aff. H3.) Additionally, according to Lt. Blevins' affidavit:

After speaking with Dean Adkins, the Commonwealth's Attorney, on
March 15,2011,1 met with Magistrate Laura Brownlee and provided her
orally with the factual information from my Report (Exhibit A) relating to
Mrs. Groendal's allegations, and with the summary of the information I
learned from my interviews with Abigail and Todd Owen Groendal.
Magistrate Laura Brownlee, after finding probable cause, issued arrest
warrants for Peter Willis for (1) Attempted First Degree Murder; (2)
Aggravated Malicious Wounding; and (3) Abduction.

(BlevinsAff. Ml 11-12.)

Because Willis argues that Lt. Blevins should have conducted a more thorough

investigation before obtaining a warrant and that he failed to disclose to the magistrate

possible discrepancies encountered during his interview of Groendal, Willis contends that

no reasonably competent officer would have concluded that a warrant should issue. This

logic simply does not follow. The fact that reasonably competent police officers might

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disagree as to whether probable cause exists, or whether additional investigation is

appropriate, does not preclude qualified immunity. Malley, 475 U.S. at 341. There is no

requirement that a "reasonable officer must exhaust every potentially exculpatory lead or

resolve every doubt about a suspect's guilt before probable cause is established."

Torchinsky v. Siwinski, 942 F.2d. 257, 264 (4th Cir. 1991).

Moreover, "the truthfulness of a witness statement is irrelevant as to whether

affiant's statements were truthful." Evans v. Chalmers, 703 F.3d 636, 650 (4th Cir.

2012). "For probable cause to exist, there need only be enough evidence to warrant the

belief of a reasonable officer that an offense has been or is being committed; evidence

sufficient to convict is not required." Brown v. Gilmore, 278 F.3d 362, 367 (4th Cir.

2002) (citation omitted).6

Despite Willis' assertion that the information Lt. Blevins provided to the

magistrate was false, there is no evidence in the record to support Willis' claim. In fact, a

review of the record reveals the contrary. The information Lt. Blevins provided under

oath tracked the results of his investigation. Only two people were present when the

alleged crimes occurred—Willis and Groendal. Lt. Blevins reasonably chose to credit

Groendal's testimony. He cannot be held legally responsible for the credibility of the

complainant, Groendal. Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154, 171 (1978).

6The centerpiece ofWillis' lawsuit is the fact that he was acquitted ofall charges byajury. The
inquiry, however, is not outcome dispositive. The central focus of a Fourth Amendment claim is
"probable cause," a decision statutorily entrusted to a magistrate. The responsibility of the
officer is to truthfully present the results of his investigation to the magistrate. The officer
reports, the magistrate decides.

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Willis has failed to go beyond his pleadings and present specific evidence to

establish a genuine issue of material fact. Even taken in the light most favorable to

Willis, the factual record fails to show that Lt. Blevins violated a constitutional right.

This Court, therefore, finds that Lt. Blevins' actions were both constitutionally sound and

objectively reasonable. He is entitled to qualified immunity on Willis' claim of false

arrest under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as contained in Count I of the Complaint.

Turning next to Count II, Willis alleges a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on

Lt. Blevins' alleged malicious prosecution of him. Although this claim has several

elements, the pivotal issue is that Lt. Blevins lacked probable cause for the arrest. As

discussed above, Willis offers no supporting facts, only conclusions laced with

speculation. Althoughhe reiterates that the warrant for his arrest was predicated on false

statements made by Lt. Blevins to the magistrate, he cites no evidence to support this

contention. In fact, there is no indication in the record that anyone other than Lt. Blevins

and the magistratewere present when the warrant was obtained. Willis alleges in Count

II that "[t]he evidence is also clear from Exhibit A of Blevins' affidavit that he did not

have probable cause of any kind to pursue these two charges or arrest the plaintiff on

these charges." (PL's Mem. Opp'n 11.) This Court disagrees.

The second component of Willis' civil rights claim of malicious prosecution is that

Lt. Blevins mislead the commonwealth's attorney in securing his indictment. This

accusation again appears to flow from Willis' perception that Lt. Blevins misrepresented

and/or mischaracterized his interview with Groendal. This contention trips in the starting

gate. In his affidavit, Lt. Blevins not only denies providing false information to the

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prosecutor, but authenticates ExhibitF to his affidavit as a true and accurate transcript of

the March 30, 2011 interview of Groendal. A cursory review of the transcript reveals

that the assistant commonwealth's attorney was not only present during the interview, but

actually questioned Groendal.

The evidence forecast by Willis to support Count II is no more substantive than

that offered in Count I. It is rich in speculation but short on facts. Willis' general denials

and accusations, unadorned with specific facts, are insufficient to survive summary

judgment challenge.7

The remaining claims, Counts III and IV, are closely allied. Count III alleges that

Lt. Blevins fabricated evidence; Count IV maintains that Lt. Blevins conspired with the

assistant commonwealth's attorney to present the fabricated evidence at the preliminary

hearing and at trial. These claims focus on two separate items of evidence—photographs

of Groendal's bathroom and the characterization of abrasions on her arm portrayed in

photographs presented in court.

Willis contends that Lt. Blevins testified falsely at his preliminary hearing—but

not at trial—that the marks on Groendal's wrists were caused by a ligature, rather than

self-inflicted. Willis alleges that after Lt. Blevins and the assistant commonwealth's

attorney conducted their March 30, 2011 interview of Groendal, the origin of the marks

7Lt. Blevins also argues that he has no legal responsibility for any prosecutorial or litigation
related decisions following the prosecutor's authorization of Willis' arrest. He argues that the
subsequent acts of independent decision makers, namely the commonwealth's attorney,
constituted an intervening superseding cause breaking the causal chain between his alleged
misconduct and Willis' arrest and prosecution. Evans, 703 F.3d at 647. Lt. Blevins is correct
from a legal perspective, but Willis claims that Lt. Blevins' willful misconduct misled the
prosecution.

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on her wrists should have been clearly evident. A close examination of the record fails to

support this contention.

In his initial incident report, Exhibit A to Lt. Blevins' affidavit, he indicated that

"[t]he victim stated that the suspect pulled the victim on to the bed in the bedroom and

attempted to restrain the victim's wrists with a [sic] black in color cloth restraints. The

suspect was able to place the restraint on the victim's left wrist (photographs of ligature

marks)." (Blevins Aff. Ex. A, at 2.)

Willis is correct that during the March 30, 2011 interview, Groendal revealed that

during the altercation on March 8, 2011 that led to Willis' arrest, Groendal locked herself

in the bathroom and while there, cut into her arms with a razor in order to "numb the

emotion[]."8 (Carey Groendal at4:19-5:7.) Later in the interview, however, Groendal

adds "[w]e were fighting. He was trying to tie my hands behind my back with a pair of

cuffs and that's when I remember Abigail [her daughter] walking in." {Id. at 13.) Lt.

Blevins then drew Groendal's attention closely to two marks on her left wrist and asked,

"did you [do] that yourself as well?," to which she replied, "No. I did not do that."

(Carey Groendal, at 14:10-11.) The photographs of Groendal's wrists displayed to her on

March 30, 2011 are authenticated in Lt. Blevins' affidavit and attached as Exhibit B.

These photographs were available for the trier of fact at both the preliminary hearing and

trial, and essentially speak for themselves. Clearly, from casual observation, it does not

8When Lt. Blevinssearched the scene on March 8, 2011, he did not find an Xacto razoras
described by Groendal. (May 8,2012 Trial Tr., Blevins Aff. Ex. K, at 26:26-27:16.)

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appear that at least some ofthe marks on her wrists—the abrasions—could have been

caused by a razor blade.

Obviously, Lt. Blevins was not present when the marks at issue were administered

to Groendal's wrists. Therefore, his testimony represented his personal opinion based

upon his investigative experience and observation of the photographs. Given Groendal's

inconsistent statements concerning the origin of her injuries and the appearance of the

wounds as depicted in the photographs, this Court can find no basis to conclude that Lt.

Blevins knowingly testified falsely in his characterization of the marks.

The second strand of the constitutional claims underlying Counts III and IV

involve photographs taken by Lt. Blevins of the master bedroom at the crime scene. The

dispute distills to whether Lt. Blevins testified falsely that he detected an indentation on

the bathroom wall, arguably corroborating Gronedal's account ofthe alleged assault.9

Willis also asserts that Lt. Blevins testified falsely as to the date the photographs were

taken.

In essence, Willis maintains that Lt. Blevins' authentication ofthe accuracy of the

photographs at his trial was tantamount to perjury. Although Willis steadfastly maintains

that "no damage appeared in any of the pictures" (PL's Mem. Opp'n 13), the photos

presented at trial to the jury spoke for themselves.

In his affidavit accompanying his motion for summary judgment, Lt. Blevins

stated under oath that he returned to the alleged crime scene on March 16, 2011, one day

after Willis was arrested for attempted first degree murder, aggravated malicious

9Groendal advised Lt. Blevins that Willis pushed her twice inthe bathroom causing her head to
strike the wall.

(Carey Groendal at 7:15-24.)

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wounding, and abduction. According to his affidavit, he was assisted that day by

Detective Robert Eves ("Detective Eves") of the Colonial Beach Police Department. Lt.

Blevins stated that "[b]oth Detective Eves and I saw and felt an indentation in the wall of

the master bathroom, although it was not very visible in the photographs I took that day."

(Blevins Aff. f 14.) Detective Eves confirms this observation in his independent

affidavit. "On March 16, 2011,1 accompanied Lt. Blevins to the residence at 707

Monroe Point Drive, Colonial Beach, Virginia.... Located in the master bathroom was

an indentation in the wall, which I observed." (Eves Aff. Iffl 5-6 (ECF No. 80-5).)

In order to enhance the visibility of the indentations in the bathroom wall at the

crime scene, Lt. Blevins, accompanied by Officer Amy Molinares, returned to that

location to take additional photographs. To increase the visibility of the indentations in

the wall, Lt. Blevins employed a forensic blue light.

The light I used was a Spectroline OFK-450A Blue Forensic Light made by
Spectronics Corporation. Although the blue light is typically used for the
inspection and photographs of bodily fluids, biological stains, fingerprints,
and pattern wounds, hairs and fibers, I was able to photograph two
indentations present in the master bathroom wall by use of the blue light.
... Both Officer Molinares and I saw and felt the indentation in the wall of
the master bathroom which we photographed with the assistance of the blue
light on July 20, 2011.

(Blevins Aff. ffif 24-25.) Officer Molinares corroborates this observation in her affidavit:

"[a]fter returning to the townhouse, Lt. Blevins and I went to the master bathroom

13

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upstairs.... I recall observing an indentation in the wall of the master bathroom at 707

Monroe Point Drive, Colonial Beach." (Molinares Aff. ffl| 7, 9 (ECF No. 80-6).)10

To support his claim of fabrication and perjury, Willis correctly points out that the

photographs taken under blue light lamination were originally date stamped May 10,

2011. Willis argues that contrary to Lt. Blevins' testimony, the townhouse where the

incident occurred was not occupied on that date. Furthermore, Willis alleges that a

"move-out inspection of the residence occurred on April 10, 2011 and clearly notes there

is NO damage to the master bathroom walls." (PL's Mem. Opp'n 14.) Although Willis

refers to a specific exhibit (Exhibit 3, Century 21 Battlefield lease executed by Carey

Groendal), no such exhibit appears with the pleadings filed by Willis in this case.

With respect to the date on which the enhanced photographs were taken, Lt.

Blevins acknowledged his error. After reviewing Colonial Beach Police Department

records, he clarified that the date on which the blue light enhanced pictures were taken

was actually July 20, 2011. However, irrespective of the exact date, the evidence of

record is virtually unrebutted that such photographs were taken and that impressions in

the bathroom wall were detected. The inconsistencies highlighted by Willis may be grist

for the cross examination mill, but they fall far short of demonstrating a violation of

Willis' constitutional rights.

Moreover, Willis proffers no evidence to support his contention that Lt. Blevins

and the assistant commonwealth's attorney acted in concert to violate his civil rights.

10 The fact that these photographs were taken of the wall of the master bathroom is further
confirmed by the then occupants ofthe townhouse where the incident occurred. (David Bateman
Aff. 18 (ECF No. 80-3); Jennifer Bateman Aff. H8 (ECF No. 80-4).)

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The mere fact that Lt. Blevins and the prosecutor worked together in preparing Willis'

case for trial provides no evidentiary foundation for his conclusion that a conspiracy

existed. The fact that both shared a common objective of performing their sworn duties

hardly fosters an inference of ignobility. As the United States Court of Appeals for the

Fourth Circuit pointed out in Hinkle v. City ofClarksburg, W. Va.,

Appellants have a weighty burden to establish a civil rights conspiracy.
While they need not produce direct evidence of a meeting of the minds,
Appellants must come forward with specific circumstantial evidence that
each member of the alleged conspiracy shared the same conspiratorial
objective. In other words, to survive a properly supported summary
judgment motion, Appellants' evidence must, at least, reasonably lead to
the inference that Appellees positively or tacitly came to a mutual
understanding to try to accomplish a common and unlawful plan.

81 F.3d 416,421 (4th Cir. 1996) (citations omitted). Willis simply fails to offer any

evidence to reasonably lead to an inference that such a common understanding occurred

in this case. Moreover, he presents a disturbingly shallow factual basis for his audacious

allegations.

In the final analysis, the Court concludes that Lt. Blevins is entitled to qualified

immunity on all constitutional claims alleged by Willis. Willis identifies no substantive

evidence to support any claim of a constitutional violation. In fact, the record evidence is

insufficient to even spawn a genuine dispute of material fact as to the underlying claims.

Under this theory, Lt. Blevins is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

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An appropriate Order will accompany this Memorandum Opinion.

W
/s/
Henry E. Hudson
United States District Judge

Dated: ^fen.^SO/?
Richmond, VA

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