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GARNER v. MEOLI

August 31, 1998

TRACY GARNER and DALE GARNER
v.
POLICE OFFICER LAWRENCE A. MEOLI; and POLICE OFFICER GERALD M. MCTEAR



The opinion of the court was delivered by: DUBOIS

ORDER AND MEMORANDUM

 ORDER

 AND NOW, to wit, this 31st day of August, 1998, upon consideration of the Omnibus Post-Trial Motion of Defendants Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b); 59(a) and 59(e) (Doc. No. 114, filed April 27, 1998), Supplemental Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendants' Omnibus Post-Trial Motion (Doc. No. 119, filed May 18, 1998), and Plaintiffs' Response to Defendants' Omnibus Post-Trial Motion (Doc. No. 120, filed May 28, 1998), for the reasons set forth in the accompanying Memorandum, IT IS ORDERED that defendants' Omnibus Post-Trial Motion of Defendants Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b); 59(a) and 59(e) is DENIED.1

 MEMORANDUM

 1. Background : This case arises out of plaintiffs' claims that two Tredyffrin Township police officers unlawfully arrested plaintiff Tracy Garner, using excessive force, illegally searched his home and thereafter maliciously prosecuted him, all in violation of 42 U.S.C. ' 1983. Plaintiff Dale Garner, Tracy Garner's wife, asserted a claim for loss of consortium.

 On April 15, 1998, following a jury trial which commenced on April 6, 1998, the jury returned a verdict: (1) in favor of plaintiff Tracy Garner and against defendant Police Officer Lawrence A. Meoli in the amount of $ 78,250 in compensatory damages and $ 500,000 in punitive damages; (2) in favor of plaintiff Tracy Garner and against defendant Police Officer Gerald M. McTear in the amount of $ 75,000 in compensatory damages and $ 250,000 in punitive damages; (3) in favor of plaintiff Dale Garner and against defendant Police Officer Lawrence A. Meoli in the amount of $ 46,500 in compensatory damages; and (4) in favor of plaintiff Dale Garner and against defendant Police Officer Gerald M. McTear in the amount of $ 46,500 in compensatory damages. The Court entered judgment on the jury verdict on April 15, 1998. Defendants then filed the within Motion.

 The facts giving rise to the case are as follows:

 Plaintiffs, Tracy Garner and Dale Garner, residents of Tredyffrin Township, brought suit against Tredyffrin Township *fn2" and two Tredyffrin Township police officers. The suit arose out of an incident on June 29, 1994. On that day the Tredyffrin Township 911 operator received a call from one of plaintiff Tracy Garner's neighbors. The neighbor reported that there were loud noises, including screaming and banging, coming from plaintiffs' apartment at 230 Valley Stream Lane, Wayne, Pennsylvania. She also told the operator that she had reported a similar incident in the past. The 911 operator dispatched the defendant police officers - Officers McTear and Meoli - to the scene. There was conflicting evidence presented at trial as to whether the officers were told by the dispatcher that the neighbor had reported a similar incident in the past or whether they were told only that there was a report of a "domestic disturbance" or only a "disturbance."

 When the officers arrived at the Garner residence - a second floor condominium apartment in a residential development - they parked their car outside of the complex and proceeded up the steps to the Garner apartment. One officer, Officer Meoli was designated "contact" - the officer who first knocked on the door and interacted with Mr. Garner - and the other, Officer McTear, was "back-up" - serving as protection in case the encounter went awry. Officer McTear was also the senior officer at the scene and was Officer Meoli's supervisor. Officer Meoli testified that when approaching the apartment, he considered the call to be a "domestic disturbance" call and he was concerned that there might be injured people in the apartment.

 Officer Meoli knocked on the door and Tracy Garner answered. He was wearing only a pair of pants and dirty work boots. He had recently come home from his work as a landscaper and had not showered or cleaned up. Mr. Garner testified that a few minutes before the police arrived, he had been on the telephone with his wife. When the police arrived, he was sitting on his couch, watching television. When Officer Meoli knocked, Mr. Garner answered the door. Officer Meoli introduced himself and Officer McTear and told Mr. Garner that they were there investigating a report of a disturbance and noises coming from his apartment and asked for permission to look around the apartment. Mr. Garner asked if they were at the right location and, when assured by Officer Meoli that they were, he told the officer that he had been sleeping; he acknowledged at trial he had not been asleep. Mr. Garner described his interaction with the defendant up to this point as "cordial," but the defendants testified that Mr. Garner immediately refused to identify himself and that he became increasingly "agitated" as they pressed him for permission to enter his apartment.

 After this point, Mr. Garner's version of events diverges significantly from the defendants'. According to Mr. Garner, he refused consent to entry of his home; he would only allow the police entry if he was shown a warrant. After a further exchange of words, Mr. Garner testified that Officer Meoli simply pushed past him, proceeded down an entry foyer and scanned the interior of the apartment before exiting the apartment. After exiting, Officer Meoli placed himself in front of the threshold of the door - the same position he had been in when Mr. Garner initially opened the door. Mr. Garner attempted to close the door at this point, but could not because Officer Meoli had positioned his foot in the doorway and refused to remove it. Mr. Garner admitted to repeatedly slamming the door on Officer Meoli's foot in an attempt to close the door. He testified that he then stopped trying to close the door and offered to be arrested. Officer Meoli responded by asking to be let into the home a second time; there was another series of attempts to close the door which turned into a shoving match, after which Officer Meoli ended up "falling."

 After falling, Officer Meoli told Mr. Garner that he was under arrest. Mr. Garner said he offered his hands, but that he was told to step outside. He did so and was frisked, with his hands on top of his head. Then the officers pushed him up against an outdoor, stucco wall, hitting his head. At the same time, they ordered him to get to the ground; he tried to comply, but could not because of the way he was being held. In the course of pushing Mr. Garner to the ground, the officers repeatedly hit his head against the wall and then against a railing. During this time, Mr. Garner was "screaming" for help.

 Once on the ground, Mr. Garner was handcuffed. He then noticed that one of his neighbors had come out; when the neighbor appeared, the officers "backed off," but they would not permit the neighbor to enter Mr. Garner's home in order to get a shirt for Mr. Garner, who was still wearing only pants and work boots. Officer Meoli then entered Mr. Garner's home and conducted another search. He acknowledged that he found no one else in the apartment.

 After a "short period of time," an ambulance arrived. While the paramedics were treating Mr. Garner, a third officer - Officer Mutter - arrived at the scene and entered the home to assist in a search. Mr. Garner was thereafter taken to the hospital where his injuries were treated.

 Defendants dispute this version of events. According to defendants' testimony, while Officer Meoli was standing at the door "pleading" with Mr. Garner to be allowed into the apartment to take a "short look," he could observe "clutter" and a chair that was "thrown out of whack," raising his suspicions that there had been some kind of fight in the apartment. He very much wanted consent to enter the apartment because he feared someone might have been injured. Officer Meoli continued to speak with Mr. Garner, who was "visibly agitated" and uncooperative; he never attempted to push past Mr. Garner, nor did he enter the apartment. During this time, Mr. Garner attempted to close the door, but it tapped Officer Meoli's foot which was resting on the threshold and would not close. More agitated conversation followed, until Mr. Garner again tried to close the door, this time by slamming it hard, twice in quick succession, on Officer Meoli's foot. Officer Meoli moved away from the door and Mr. Garner followed him out of the home; Mr. Garner then kicked the officer in the shin.

 After being kicked, Officer Meoli informed Mr. Garner that he was under arrest; Mr. Garner retreated into the home, and the officer followed him. There was a brief scuffle in the hallway, and Mr. Garner ran out of the apartment to avoid being handcuffed; he began screaming for help. Officer McTear then joined Officer Meoli and together they attempted to get handcuffs on Mr. Garner, who continued resisting. During this time, they were trying to force Mr. Garner onto the ground, and were continually instructing him to get down. In the struggle to handcuff him, all three men stumbled into the stucco wall outside of Mr. Garner's apartment. At this point, Mr. Garner fell to the ground and initially appeared to be unconscious. Officer Meoli testified that although they believed he was only "pretending" to be unconscious - pretending because Officer Meoli could see him opening his eyes from time to time - under those circumstances, it was standard procedure to call for an ambulance and report that Mr. Garner was unconscious.

 Mr. Garner was charged by Officer Meoli with aggravated assault, simple assault, resisting arrest or other law enforcement, disorderly conduct and harassment. In their police report, the officers wrote that as they stood in the doorway - before any altercation - they saw a hole in the wall inside Mr. Garner's home and were concerned that it indicated a struggle or fight had taken place. They also testified to that effect at Mr. Garner's preliminary hearing. The officer defendants pursued the charges against Mr. Garner through the preliminary hearing, but following the hearing, and after an investigation, the district attorney's office decided to nol pros the charges against Mr. Garner on June 14, 1995. That decision was based, at least in part, on a report by David Pope, a materials science engineer retained by the district attorney's office, who concluded that the hole in the wall was a "near perfect" match with one of the flashlights carried by the officer defendants on the night of Mr. Garner's arrest.

 At trial, plaintiffs' expert, Craig David Clauser, testified, "with a reasonable degree of engineering certainty," that the hole in the wall was made by a police flashlight of the type carried by defendants. Plaintiffs argued that the defendants purposely made the hole in an effort to manufacture probable cause for a search of the home. Officer Meoli testified that he did not know how the hole had gotten there, that he continued to believe the hole was there before his altercation with Mr. Garner, but that it was possible that while struggling to handcuff Mr. Garner in the hallway of the home, while Mr. Garner was running back out, he bumped Officer McTear up against the wall and the flashlight attached to Officer McTear's belt made the hole.

 2. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) : A motion under Rule 50(b) "'should be granted only if, in viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant and giving it the advantage of every fair and reasonable inference, there is insufficient evidence from which a jury reasonably could find liability. In determining whether the evidence is sufficient to sustain liability, the court may not weigh the evidence, determine the credibility of witnesses, or substitute its version of the facts for the jury's version.'" McDaniels v. Flick, 59 F.3d 446, 453 (3d Cir.1995), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1146, 134 L. Ed. 2d 97, 116 S. Ct. 1017 (1996) (quoting Lightning Lube, Inc. v. Witco Corp., 4 F.3d 1153, 1166 (3d Cir.1993) (citations omitted)). A court may grant a Rule 50(b) motion only when, "without weighing the credibility of the evidence, there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the proper judgment." 5A James W. Moore, Federal Practice and Procedure & 50.07[2], at 50-76 (2d ed.) (footnote omitted).

 The basis of defendants' Rule 50(b) Motion is their contention that exigent circumstances justified their search of plaintiffs' home as a matter of law. Alternatively, even if the search was unlawful, defendants assert that they were entitled to qualified immunity. The first issue - whether there were exigent circumstances at the time defendants entered plaintiffs' home - was properly submitted to the jury because the facts surrounding the police officers' entry of plaintiffs' home were disputed. See, e.g., Sharrar v. Felsing, 128 F.3d 810, 820 (3d Cir. 1997) ("The issue of exigent circumstances . . . [where there are disputed factual issues] would be one for the jury." (citing Bodine v. Warwick, 72 F.3d 393, 399 (3d Cir. 1995)). The second issue - the claim of qualified immunity - was withdrawn by defendants at trial.

 The defendants contend that, because the defendant officers were responding to a "domestic disturbance" call, they reasonably feared for the safety of themselves or another. A reasonable fear that they or a third person are in "imminent danger" is an exigent circumstance which justifies a warrantless search. Parkhurst v. Trapp, 77 F.3d 707, 711 (3d Cir. 1996). Under the plaintiffs' version of the facts, however, the jury could have concluded that defendants did not have information that they were responding to a domestic disturbance call, as opposed to a call reporting only a "disturbance," and did not reasonably fear for the safety of themselves or others. Importantly, there was evidence contradicting defendants' assertions that when they arrived a Mr. Garner's residence, they believed they were responding to a domestic disturbance; at best, the evidence conflicted. For instance, on the 911 tapes, the dispatcher spoke with the officer defendants and described only a "disturbance." See Plaintiffs' Exhibit 2. The dispatcher also related to the officers that there had been a report of "screaming and banging." Moreover, Officer McTear testified - through reading his prior deposition - that at the time he arrived at Mr. Garner's apartment, he had no reason to believe he was entitled to conduct a search without a warrant. Transcript, April 8, 1998 at 122.

 There was also evidence that defendants had just handled a domestic disturbance call quite differently than they had handled the call to Mr. Garner's home: Officer McTear testified that on the same day as the incident giving rise to this lawsuit, he responded to another "domestic disturbance" call. In responding to that call, the police established a "command post" out of sight of the home to which they had been called, questioned neighbors, and, after recovering a rifle from the scene, did not search that home. Transcript, April 8, 1998 at 117-18. In contrast, when arriving at the Garner residence, the officers pulled up to the parking lot in front of Mr. Garner's home and did not question neighbors. Officer Meoli testified that after Mr. Garner answered the knock, and while speaking with him before the altercation, he did not observe anyone in Mr. Garner's home, did not hear any noises from inside his home and did not observe any bloodstains in his vicinity. Id. at 147. Based on this testimony, in combination with other evidence presented at trial, the jury could reasonably conclude that there were no exigent circumstances justifying a warrantless search of plaintiffs' home The Court will not, therefore, disturb the jury's findings.

 Defendants spend considerable effort arguing that the police are justified in placing a foot in the threshold of a door when speaking to a citizen. In support, they cite United States v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38, 49 L. Ed. 2d 300, 96 S. Ct. 2406 (1976), holding that when a suspect answers the door, she exposes herself to public view and is subject to arrest if the officer's have probable cause. Under the "hot pursuit" doctrine, such a suspect may not retreat into her home to thwart an arrest once the police have probable cause for that arrest. Id. at 42-43; see also Joyce v. Town of Tewksbury, 112 F.3d 19 (1st Cir. 1997) (extending Santana and holding that officers who follow a suspect for whom they have an arrest warrant into a home after he answers the door are qualifiedly immune). Based on that case, defendants argued that, as a matter of law, Officer Meoli was not conducting an illegal search merely because he had his foot in the threshold of plaintiffs' door. The Court agreed with defendants on this point and so instructed the jury, as follows:

 
In determining whether a search actually occurred in this case, I instruct you that without more a police officer has not intruded upon a home, that is, conducted a search in violation of the Fourth Amendment, when he places his foot on the threshold of a door that has been voluntarily opened.
 
Moreover, an individual who has committed a crime in his doorway may not retreat into his home to thwart or block an otherwise unlawful arrest. However, unless a police officer has probable cause to make an arrest, or an exigent circumstance exists justifying his entrance into the home, an officer may not ...

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