The opinion of the court was delivered by: BY THE COURT; JAMES T. GILES
Plaintiff, who is proceeding pro se, filed the instant 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action on February 5, 1992.
The complaint alleges that Philadelphia Police Officers Mark Howard and Antonio Santiago violated plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights when they searched, without probable cause, an automobile that he occupied. The search produced two firearms. The complaint further alleges that defendants conspired to fabricate a story that their search was inspired by an informant's tip. Plaintiff demands compensatory and punitive damages, and requests declaratory relief stating that all criminal charges stemming from the allegedly illegal search and seizure are null and void. Defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the motion for summary judgment is denied. However, further action in this matter is stayed pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings against plaintiff.
Plaintiff was arrested on January 10, 1991 by Philadelphia Police Officers Mark Howard and Antonio Santiago. The Officers claim to have found two firearms in the car which plaintiff and another man occupied at the time of his arrest. Plaintiff has been charged with various firearms offenses, and is awaiting trial in the Criminal Division of Philadelphia Municipal Court.
On August 20, 1991, plaintiff litigated a motion to suppress physical evidence, namely the firearms allegedly found in his car, in his criminal case. Municipal Court Judge Thomas McCormick granted the motion to suppress on September 23, 1991. The Commonwealth appealed Judge McCormick's decision to the Court of Common Pleas. On November 22, 1991, Common Pleas Judge Arnold New reversed the Municipal Court's decision and remanded the case for trial. Plaintiff appealed Judge New's decision to the Superior Court, which quashed his appeal as interlocutory on September 14, 1992.
Both of defendants' arguments fail. The state court decision that plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights have not been violated can not be given preclusive effect in this court because it is not a final judgment. While defendants are correct that considerations of comity must guide this court's decision, we are required to stay plaintiff's civil rights claims rather than dismiss them.
Defendants claim that the existence of probable cause for the search and seizure, which is central to plaintiff's federal civil rights claim, "has been fully and completely litigated in the criminal state court." Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment at 9. Therefore, according to defendants, principles of collateral estoppel require this court to give binding effect to the state court's decision that the search was legal. Determination that the search was proper would require the court to enter judgment for defendants.
Defendants are correct that collateral estoppel principles apply to § 1983 actions and require a federal district court to give binding effect to the decision of a state court in some circumstances. Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 66 L. Ed. 2d 308, 101 S. Ct. 411 (1980). However, it is fundamental that in order for a claim to be barred by collateral estoppel there must have been a prior final judgment on the merits of the claim. Drum v. Nasuti, 648 F.Supp. 888, 897-98 (E.D. Pa. 1986) (citing Kelly v. Warminster Township Board of Supervisors, 512 F.Supp. 658 (E.D. Pa. 1981), aff'd, 681 F.2d 806 (3rd Cir. 1982), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 834, 74 L. Ed. 2d 74, 103 S. Ct. 76 (1982); Montana v. United States, 440 U.S. 147, 153, 59 L. Ed. 2d 210, 99 S. Ct. 970 ...