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SNELL v. DUFFY

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania


January 6, 2004.

MICHAEL SNELL, ET AL., Plaintiffs, v., ROBERT DUFFY, ET AL., Defendants

The opinion of the court was delivered by: EDUARDO ROBRENO, District Judge

MEMORANDUM

Michael C. Snell ("plaintiff")*fn1 filed a complaint in this case against Pennsylvania State Troopers Robert J. Duffy and Jeffrey Wlock, and the Pennsylvania State Police, alleging several causes of action arising from plaintiff's prosecution on simple assault charges stemming from an incident which occurred November 13, 1999. Plaintiff's complaint is essentially based on his allegations that Troopers Duffy and Wlock did not have probable cause to request the issuance of a citation (which led to the plaintiff's prosecution) and that the affidavit of probable cause that defendants filed to obtain the citation from the District Justice contained false statements and omitted relevant information. Page 2

Under the undisputed facts of this case, the court finds that (1) plaintiff has failed to produce sufficient evidence establishing malice, a required element of a malicious prosecution claim; and that (2) no reasonable jury could find that plaintiff lacked probable cause to request a citation against Michael Snell. Furthermore, plaintiff has failed to produce any evidence that Trooper Duffy made false statements of material fact in the affidavit of probable cause or that, with reckless disregard for the truth, he omitted any material facts therein.

  Because the court finds that plaintiff has not provided sufficient evidence with which a reasonable jury could find that his constitutional rights have been violated, summary judgment in favor of the defendants as to Counts I and IV of plaintiff's complaint is appropriate.

 I. BACKGROUND

  A. The Underlying Incident*fn2

  The underlying criminal prosecution of plaintiff Michael Snell arose from an incident that allegedly occurred on Page 3 November 13, 1999. On that day, Michael Snell and his son, Woodrow, went hunting with a. 22 caliber rifle (a ".22") and a scope in a field behind their house in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. As they were walking by their neighbors' backyard, they saw their neighbors' three young boys who were throwing rocks and cursing at them. According to plaintiff, he and his son continued walking and went hunting for about an hour.

  Later, Pennsylvania State Trooper Duffy received a call on his police radio regarding a report that an individual had pointed a gun at three children. Both Troopers Duffy and Wlock responded to the call, which came from the home of the Snells' neighbors. At the scene, Trooper Duffy interviewed the alleged victims, Tyler and Brian Brady and Zachary Buck, in the presence of their parents, Mrs. Brady and Mrs. Buck. The children alleged that Michael Snell had pointed a gun at them on three separate occasions and screamed at them.*fn3 Duffy inspected the area where the alleged incident took place, but found no physical evidence to support the boys' claim.

  Duffy then interviewed Michael Snell. During the interview, Snell confirmed that he owned a ".22" and that earlier that afternoon he and his son had gone hunting in a field behind the Bradys' home, taking with them that particular gun. Snell Page 4 also confirmed that he had seen the Brady and Buck children in the backyard as he and his son walked by. Although Duffy did not reveal the nature of the incident he was investigating, Snell said during the interview, "Are you here because somebody pointed an unloaded and unbolted gun at these children."*fn4 (Def. Exh. 1 at 21.)

  Trooper Duffy then asked plaintiff for the gun. Snell complied by going into his shed to get the gun. Snell, however, would not allow Duffy to enter the shed without a warrant. Despite Snell's refusal to consent, Trooper Wlock entered the shed behind Snell and allegedly pushed Woodrow Snell aside to take the weapon from the plaintiff.*fn5 Wlock left the shed with the gun and turned it over to Duffy. Troopers Duffy and Wlock then left the scene with Snell's rifle.

  Based on the interview of the alleged victims and the plaintiff's voluntary statements to him, Trooper Duffy requested that the District Justice issue a citation for Michael Snell to appear in court to answer the charge that he pointed a gun at the children. Upon receiving the citation, Snell appeared for a Page 5 hearing in front of District Justice Susan Welsh in the Magisterial District Court of Delaware County on December 9, 1999.

  At the hearing Tyler Brady testified that Michael Snell pointed a gun at himself, Brian Brady and Zachary Buck. The District Justice determined that there was sufficient evidence to proceed with the charges of simple assault and harassment and set bail in the amount of $5,000. Snell was also told that he was not allowed to leave the state (other than for work) without calling the Chester County Bail Office.

  Snell subsequently went to trial on the charges and a jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

  B. The Instant Action

  Following his acquittal at trial, the plaintiff filed the instant action against Pennsylvania State Troopers Robert Duffy and Jeffrey Wlock and the Pennsylvania State Police ("PSP"). The complaint contained allegations of: malicious prosecution (Count I), false arrest (Count II), battery (Count III) (against Trooper Wlock only), reckless and/or intentional omission of material exculpatory information from (and inclusion of materially false information in) an affidavit of probable cause (count IV), failure to train or supervise (count V) (against Page 6 the Pennsylvania State Police), and punitive damages (count VI).*fn6

  In response to plaintiff's complaint, the Pennsylvania State Police filed a motion to dismiss, seeking dismissal of all of plaintiff's claims against it based on sovereign immunity. Finding that plaintiff's state law claim against PSP for failure to train its officers was barred by the Eleventh Amendment, the court dismissed PSP from the suit.

  Troopers Wlock and Duffy also filed a motion to dismiss seeking dismissal of Counts II and III of plaintiff's complaint. They argued that Count II was barred by the statute of limitations and, similar to the argument made by PSP, that plaintiff's state law claim for battery against Wlock was barred by sovereign immunity. The court agreed that the statute of limitations had run on plaintiff's false arrest claim but reserved judgment as to whether Wlock was immune to suit on the battery claim.*fn7

  The parties then filed cross — motions for summary judgment. Troopers Duffy and Wlock have moved for summary judgment on all of plaintiff's remaining claims against them Page 7 (i.e., malicious prosecution, battery, and reckless and/or intentional omission of material exculpatory evidence from, and inclusion of materially false information in, an affidavit of probably cause). Plaintiff has moved for partial summary judgment on his malicious prosecution claim.*fn8

 II. DISCUSSION

  A. Standard for Summary Judgment

  Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) is designed to secure a just, speedy and inexpensive determination of cases before they proceed to trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986). When confronted with cross — motions for summary judgment "[t]he court must rule on each party's motion on an individual and separate basis, determining, for each side, whether a judgment may be entered in accordance with the Rule 56 standard." 10A Charles A. Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2720 (1998). Thus, with respect to each party, summary judgment is proper when the pleadings, Page 8 depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-52 (1986). An issue is genuine only if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could find for the non — moving party. Id. at 251-52. In making this determination, a court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non — movant. See Meyer v. Riegel Prods. Corp., 720 F.2d 303, 307 n.2 (3d Cir. 1983), cert. denied, 465 U.S. 1091 (1984). Thus, summary judgment should be granted only if no reasonable trier of fact could find for the non — moving party. See id.; Radich v. Goode, 886 F.2d 1391, 1395 (3d Cir. 1989). Page 9

  B. Plaintiff's Section 1983 Claim for Malicious Prosecution*fn9

  To establish a claim under Section 1983, the plaintiff must show that Troopers Duffy and Wlock, acting under color of state law, deprived him of a right or privilege secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States.*fn10 Williams v. Borough Page 10 of West Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 464 (3d Cir. 1989). Plaintiff claims, and the defendants do not contest, that at all relevant times the defendants were acting under the color of law. What is at issue, therefore, is whether Snell was deprived of a constitutional right.

  Plaintiff essentially argues that his constitutional rights were violated because he was restrained in his liberty (by being restricted from interstate travel, except for work, unless he received prior permission) and because he was forced to defend himself in suit based on charges filed without probable cause. In other words, plaintiff argues that his Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure were violated. To maintain a Section 1983 action for malicious prosecution based upon the Fourth Amendment, plaintiff must prove the basic elements of the common law tort of malicious prosecution, namely that: "(1) the defendants initiated a criminal proceeding; (2) the criminal proceeding ended in plaintiff's favor; (3) the proceeding was initiated without probable cause; and (4) the defendants acted maliciously or for a purpose other than bringing the plaintiff to justice." Donahue v. Gavin, 280 F.3d 371, 379 (3d Cir. 2002). In addition, in order to establish a deprivation of Page 11 "constitutional right," the plaintiff must show "some deprivation of liberty consistent with the concept of `seizure.'" Gallo v. City of Philadelphia, 161 F.3d 217, 222 (3d Cir. 1998) (quoting Singer v. Fulton County Sheriff, 63 F.3d 110, 116 (2d Cir. 1995)). The seizure must be the consequence of legal proceeding, such as an indictment.*fn11 See id.

  1. Malice

  As an initial matter, although plaintiff alleges in his complaint that Troopers Duffy and Wlock "acted maliciously or for purposes other than the interest of justice," the court finds that there has been insufficient evidence produced by the plaintiff from which a reasonable jury could conclude that defendants acted with malice towards plaintiff. "Actual malice in the context of malicious prosecution is defined as either ill will in the sense of spite, lack of belief by the actor himself Page 12 in the propriety of the prosecution, or its use for an extraneous improper purpose." Wagner v. Waitlevertch, 774 A.2d 1247, 1253 (Pa. Super. 2001). Plaintiff has produced no evidence that the prosecution of plaintiff was premised on anything other than a belief that a crime had been committed by plaintiff, or that the defendants, in any way, doubted the propriety of the prosecution.*fn12

  However, to the extent that malice can be inferred from the absence of probable cause, Lippay v. Christos, 996 F.2d 1490, 1502 (3d Cir. 1993); see also Curley v. Automobile Finance Co., 23 A.2d 48, 51 (Pa. 1941)(holding that want of probable cause is evidence of malice but not conclusory of that issue), the court must further address whether plaintiff has produced evidence from Page 13 which a jury could find that the defendants requested the issuance of a citation against plaintiff without probable cause.

  2. Want of Probable Cause

  Plaintiff has also failed to produce evidence from which a reasonable fact — finder could conclude that defendants lacked probable cause to request the issuance of the citation against plaintiff.*fn13 Probable cause is "defined in terms of [objective] facts and circumstances `sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing that the [suspect] had committed or was committing an offense.'" Gerstein v. Puqh, 420 U.S. 103, 111 (1975) (quoting Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91 (1964)). "A court must look at the "totality of the circumstances" and use a "common sense" approach to the issue of probable cause." Sharrar v. Felsing, 128 F.3d 810, 818 (3d Cir. 1997).

  Although, generally, the existence of probable cause in a Section 1983 action is a question for the trier of fact,*fn14 "a Page 14 district court may conclude `that probable cause exists as a matter of law if the evidence, viewed [in the light] most favorabl[e] to the [p]laintiff,'" could not support a contrary finding, and the court "may enter summary judgment accordingly." Merkle v. Upper Dublin Sch. Dist., 211 F.3d 782, 788-89 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Montgomery v. De Simone, 159 F.3d 120, 124 (3d Cir. 1998); Sherwood v. Mulvihill, 113 F.3d 396, 401 (3d Cir. 1997); Sharrar v. Felsing, 128 F.3d 810, 818 (3d Cir. 1997). A determination of probable cause should be left for the jury "only if there is sufficient evidence whereby a jury could reasonably find that the police officers did not have probable cause." Sharrar, 128 F.3d at 818.

  Viewing the undisputed facts in this case in the light most favorable to plaintiff, and under the "totality of circumstances," the court finds that there was probable cause to request a citation against Michael Snell. Upon arriving at the scene of the call, Trooper Duffy solicited statements from the three children, Tyler and Brian Brady, and Zachary Buck, that: On the afternoon of November 11, 1999, as they were playing in the backyard of their home, they saw Michael Snell and his son, Woodrow Snell walking in an open field behind the backyard of their home. Mr. Snell was carrying what the children believed was a handgun and Woodrow Snell was carrying a "long gun." As the Snells were walking past the them, Mr. Snell took the long Page 15 gun from Woodrow, turned toward the children and pointed a gun at them. Mr. Snell pointed the gun at them on two additional occasions.*fn15 Woodrow Snell did not turn toward the children during the entire incident. After the gun was pointed at them, the children then turned and ran into their home because they believed that Mr. Snell was going to shoot them. Trooper Duffy made a determination that the children's statements were credible (see Def. Exh.2, Dep. of T. Duffy at 43). He also took statements from the children's mothers (Mrs. Brady and Mrs. Buck) who related that both families had had problems with Mr. Snell in the past and that the hostilities had been escalating.

  That same day, Trooper Duffy interviewed the plaintiff. Snell admitted that he had gone hunting earlier that afternoon in the area of the alleged incident. He stated that the children had cursed at him as he and his son walked past the area. Snell also admitted that he had been carrying a scope and his son had been carrying a. 22 rifle.*fn16 Furthermore, although Duffy had not informed Snell of the nature of the incident or complaint that he was investigating, Snell stated that he could not believe that he was being asked about pointing an unloaded gun at the children, Page 16 that he considered it to be harassment, and that there was going to be a lawsuit over this. Trooper Duffy also noted that over the course of Snell's interview he became extremely loud, difficult and defensive. At the end of the interview, Snell voluntarily retrieved the rifle from an outside garage when Trooper Duffy told him he would need to take it as evidence.

  Based upon Snell's voluntary admissions and the statements made by the alleged victims (the Brady and Buck children), Trooper Duffy concluded that charges of simple assault, recklessly endangering another person, and harassment were warranted (based on his belief that there was probable cause to believe that plaintiff pointed a. 22 caliber rifle at the three children and that his actions caused the children to be in fear of serious bodily injury). The court agrees with Trooper Duffy's determination.

  Additionally, after the citation was issued, District Justice Welsh found, after hearing the testimony of one of the alleged victims, Tyler Brady, and arguments by counsel, that there was sufficient evidence to "bind over" plaintiff's case to the Court of Common Pleas for trial (see Tr. at 50, Def. Exh. 4). While not conclusive evidence of the existence of probable cause, the decision of the district justice to hold over Snell for a trial on the charges constitutes "weighty evidence" that Duffy had probable cause to request the issuance of the citation. See Page 17 Tarlecki v. Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital, No. 01-CV-1347, 2002 WL 1565568, *3 (E.D. Pa. July 15, 2002) (Robreno, J.); Cosmas v. Bloomingdale's Bros. Inc., 660 A.2d 83, 87 (Pa. Super. 1995).

  In his motion for summary judgment, plaintiff essentially makes three arguments as to why the defendants lacked probable cause to request the citation. First, he argues that probable cause was negated because the circumstances of this case raised doubts as to the veracity of the witnesses or their credibility.*fn17 Second, plaintiff argues that probable cause Page 18 cannot be based solely on the testimony of minors.*fn18 Third, plaintiff argues that the police should have interviewed and used the statements of known witnesses, Mrs. Snell and Woodrow Snell, in their determination of probable cause.*fn19 A closer reading of the plaintiff's argument reveals that plaintiff is essentially contending that Duffy lacked the requisite probable cause to request the citation because his investigation was not thorough. According to plaintiff, had Duffy conducted a more thorough investigation, the information he obtained would have undermined the credibility of the alleged victims and hence materially influenced his finding of probable cause. The court disagrees.

  Contrary to plaintiff's argument, the law does not require the police to conduct a "thorough" investigation, leaving Page 19 no stone unturned. Such a heightened burden would convert a preliminary investigation into a full — fledged inquisition. Rather, the law commands that "once a law enforcement officer has sufficient evidence within his knowledge to establish probable cause, no further investigation is required." See Dintino v. Echols, 243 F. Supp.2d 255, 264 (E.D. Pa. 2003) (Robreno J.). Accord Vazquez v. Rossnage, 31 Fed. Appx. 778, 2002 WL 480963, at *2 (3d Cir. March 29, 2002) ("Once [the police officer] had established that there was sufficient probable cause to arrest [plaintiff], there was no need for additional investigations."); Merkle, 211 F.3d at 790 (stating that a police officer need not undertake "an exhaustive investigation in order to validate the probable cause that, in his mind, already exist[s]"); Ricciuti v. N.Y.C. Transit Auth., 124 F.3d 123, 128 (2d cir. 1997) ("Once a police officer has a reasonable basis for believing there is probable cause, he is not required to explore and eliminate every theoretically plausible claim of innocence before making an arrest."). Thus, once Duffy determined that there was probable cause to request a citation against plaintiff for simple assault, he had no duty to "exhaust every possible investigatory avenue" or "to negate every possible theory that exculpated the plaintiff." See Dintino, 243 F. Supp.2d at 265. Furthermore, "absent evidence of wrongdoing or bad faith,. . . it is not the province of the court to second — guess the investigatory Page 20 techniques used and decisions made by law enforcement officials."*fn20 Id. at 265-66.

  C. Plaintiff's Claim Concerning the Affidavit of Probable Cause (Count IV)*fn21

  Count IV of plaintiff's complaint alleges that the defendants "intentionally or recklessly omitted from the warrant or affidavit of probable cause material exculpatory information" and included "materially false information critical to the determination of probable cause" from that affidavit. While plaintiff's claim in Count I that Duffy lacked probable cause to request the issuance of a citation against him required the court to test the legal sufficiency of Duffy's request for a citation (and/or his affidavit of probable cause), this latter claim challenges the veracity of the Duffy's request for a citation. See Dintino, 243 F. Supp.2d at 263. ("[C]hallenges to an arresting officer's determination of probable cause, when an arrest is made pursuant to an arrest warrant issued by an independent magistrate, involve not only the legal sufficiency of Page 21 the affidavit . . ., but also the veracity of the affiant."). To challenge Duffy's veracity, the plaintiff must show that Trooper Duffy: "1) knowingly and deliberately, or with reckless disregard for the truth, made false statements or omissions in his affidavit of probable cause that create a falsehood in [his request for an issuance of a warrant]; and 2) such statements or omissions are material to the finding of probable cause." Merkle, 211 F.3d at 789.

  Plaintiff alleges that Trooper Duffy made one false statement. Plaintiff argues that, on the Police Initial Incident Report (Pl's Exh. 16)*fn22 filed by Duffy, he falsely stated that he canvassed the neighborhood. Since, at his deposition, Duffy admitted that he did not canvass the neighborhood for witnesses, plaintiff argues that Duffy's misstatement in the affidavit amounted to a false statement. However, plaintiff misreads the report. On the Incident Report, Duffy checked the box on the bottom of the form indicating that he had not canvassed the neighborhood. Therefore, plaintiff's reliance on this document as an indication of a false statement is misplaced.*fn23 Page 22

  Plaintiff further alleges that Duffy's affidavit failed to include any statements by Mrs. Snell that she witnessed the incident and that her husband did not point a gun at the neighbors' children. In his deposition, Trooper Duffy stated that he did not remember what, if anything, Mrs. Snell said to him that day and that any statements she did make were not included in the incident report because she was the wife of the accused and, thus, a biased witness. Even assuming that the exculpating statement was made by Mrs. Snell, and that the statement was knowingly and deliberately withheld by Duffy, no reasonable jury could find that such a statement would have been "material to the finding of probable cause." See Merkle, 211 F.3d at 789. This is so because Mrs. Snell's statement, if believed, would not have been sufficient to nullify the force of the children's incriminating statements and plaintiff's own admission, such that the final calculus of probable cause would have been different. To put it succinctly, including the statement by Mrs. Snell in the Duffy affidavit would not have resulted in finding that there was no probable cause. For those Page 23 reasons, the court concludes that no rational fact — finder could find that the omission of Mrs. Snell's statement in the affidavit of probable cause was a material omission.

 CONCLUSION

  For the foregoing reasons, defendants' motion for summary judgment as to Counts I and IV is granted and plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment is denied.*fn24

  An appropriate order follows.

  ORDER

  AND NOW, this ___ th day of January, 2004, it is hereby ORDERED that defendant's motion for summary judgment (doc. no. 24) as to Counts I and IV of plaintiff's complaint is GRANTED.[fn1a] Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment (doc. no. 27) is DENIED.

  IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Count VI of plaintiff's complaint is DISMISSED without prejudice.[fn2a]

  IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Defendant Wlock shall have ten (10) days to file a supplemental memorandum addressing plaintiff's contention that he is entitled to relief for the constitutional tort of excessive force with respect to Count III of his complaint.

  AND IT IS SO ORDERED.


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