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WILLIAMS v. CITY OF LANCASTER

June 18, 1986

MARY CATHERINE WILLIAMS, as Administratrix of the Estate of James Michael Williams, deceased, and as guardian ad litem for Aaron Seth Williams, an infant, suing in his own right
v.
THE CITY OF LANCASTER, PENNSYLVANIA, THE CITY OF LANCASTER PENNSYLVANIA BUREAU OF POLICE, et al.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HUYETT

 HUYETT, J.

 Plaintiff Mary Catherine Williams brought this civil rights and wrongful death action against the City of Lancaster, the Lancaster Bureau of Police, and various individual police officers. She seeks to recover damages for the death of her brother James Michael Williams, who hung himself in his cell at the Lancaster police station on March 5, 1983. Defendants have moved for summary judgment on the federal claims. For the reasons explained below, I will grant their motion as to the federal claims, and will dismiss the other counts as well.

 I. INTRODUCTION

 This action arises out of decedent's arrest in the early morning of March 5, 1983 for allegedly tripping a false fire alarm. Shortly after his arrest, decedent was transported to the Lancaster police station, and placed in a holding cell. A few hours later, he was found in the cell, hanging by his shirt. Plaintiff contends that her brother's civil rights were violated in the following ways: there was no probable cause for his arrest; he was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment; defendants exhibited reckless disregard for his safety; and defendants conspired to deprive him of his liberty.

 II. FACTS

 During the evening of March 4, 1983, and into the early morning of the next day, decedent, his brother, and some male friends visited several clubs in Lancaster as part of a bachelor celebration. The celebration was a prelude to the March 5th wedding of John Mark Williams, decedent's brother. The men, decedent included, consumed alcoholic beverages during the bachelor party, and decedent was obviously intoxicated at the time of his arrest.

 At about 1:00 a.m. on March 5th, a fire alarm was triggered on the second floor of the Duke Street parking garage in Lancaster. The garage attendant, who was in a booth on the first floor, noticed a group of young men in the garage just before the alarm sounded. Within seconds after the alarm was activated, the attendant observed a man in a brown jacket exit from the elevator and join the others, who then left the garage. Shortly thereafter, police and fire department personnel arrived on the scene. They determined that no fire had occurred; they reset the alarm; and they spoke to the garage attendant. Hearing his story of the group of young men, they advised him to notify the police should the men reappear. Then, the policemen and firemen left the garage.

 Approximately an hour later, the same group of young men -- decedent, his brother, and friends -- drove up to the parking attendant's booth, seeking to exit from the garage. Using the pretext that the gate was malfunctioning, the attendant prevented their exit, and called the police. Soon, police and fire department personnel returned to the garage. Defendant Samuel Gatchell, a police officer, spoke to the attendant, who confirmed that these were the men whom he had seen earlier. The attendant also pointed out decedent as the man in the brown jacket.

 Gatchell explained the situation to the group -- that they were suspected of setting off the alarm -- and each man jokingly admitted having activated it. According to the officers' uncontradicted accounts, the group appeared cheerful and cooperative. There is no indication in the record that anyone asked to leave or complained about being detained.

 A few minutes after Gatchell's arrival, fire department officials appeared with an ultra-violet light, designed to detect the presence of fluorescent paste. Each alarm box in Lancaster is coated with fluorescent paste that adheres to any object that comes in contact with it. This paste is invisible in ordinary light, but registers under ultra-violet rays. With at least five officers from the police and fire departments looking on, the ultra-violet light was shone on the hands of each member of the group. Traces of fluorescent paste were detected on decedent's hands only.

 As a result of the attendant's identification and of this test, Gatchell arrested decedent, who was a 26-year-old student with no criminal record. Gatchell took Williams to the police station, there advising him of his constitutional rights. Williams acknowledged that he understood his rights. At the station, decedent was again examined under ultra-violet light, and the presence of fluorescent paste was again visible. Gatchell then "booked" Williams, and took him to a holding cell at about 3:00 a.m.

 Before going to the cell, decedent spoke to his brother, telling him that he was "okay." According to the unrefuted testimony of the officers, Williams appeared neither angry nor upset, although he was obviously intoxicated. The police confiscated Williams' belongings, including the medicine he took for his asthma. Decedent never complained that he was in need of that medicine, or of medical attention.

 Williams was placed in a single cell next to one containing another prisoner named Dwayne Sourbeer. No one else was present in the cellblock at the time. It was the duty of defendant officer John Beam to check the cells every half-hour, as required by state regulations. Beam checked Williams four times between his arrival and 5:00 a.m. At that time, Beam left the station to feed the police horses -- another one of his regular duties.

 During his checks of the cells, Beam talked with Williams, who seemed in good spirits. Beam informed him that, at 6:00 a.m., he would go before a magistrate, who would set his bail. According to Beam, decedent did not act especially distressed by this news. Beam returned to the station at approximately 5:45 a.m., did some paper work in Williams' case, and then went to the cellblock. Shortly before 6:00 a.m., Beam found Williams hanging by his shirt in his cell. Efforts to revive Williams failed, and he was pronounced dead soon afterward. An autopsy showed the cause of death to be suicide, and found Williams to have been intoxicated.

 Sourbeer, who was admittedly intoxicated while in jail, told the police that he heard a gagging noise coming from the adjoining cell. Sourbeer could not see decedent, but supposed him to be in distress. In order to call help, Sourbeer banged loudly on the bars of his cell but no one appeared. Sourbeer did not call out, however. Sourbeer also testified that between 30-45 minutes later, an officer ...


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