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
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.
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.
A. The Underlying Incident*fn2
The underlying criminal prosecution of plaintiff Michael Snell arose
from an incident that allegedly occurred on
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
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
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
the Pennsylvania State Police), and punitive damages (count
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
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
(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
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
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).
B. Plaintiff's Section 1983 Claim for Malicious
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
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
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
"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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
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
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
Contrary to plaintiff's argument, the law does not require the
police to conduct a "thorough" investigation, leaving
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.