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DONALDSON v. MUGAVERO

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania


February 26, 2004.

KENNETH DONALDSON, Plaintiff,
v.
SCOTT MUGAVERO, Defendant

The opinion of the court was delivered by: JAMES KNOLL GARDNER, District Judge

OPINION

This matter is before the court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, which motion was filed October 28, 2003, and Agent Mugavero's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment and Response to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, which cross-motion was filed December 19, 2003.

  For the reasons expressed below, we conclude that defendant is entitled to qualified immunity from plaintiff's Page 2 unlawful arrest claim as a matter of law. Therefore, we grant defendant's cross-motion, deny as moot plaintiff's motion, and enter judgment in favor of defendant.

  PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

  This civil action arises from plaintiff's arrest by defendant on September 19, 2002 for technical parole violations. On February 28, 2003, plaintiff filed a Complaint against defendant alleging civil liability for unlawful arrest. By Order dated September 3, 2003 this court dismissed all claims alleged against defendant in his official capacity and allowed defendant the opportunity to re-raise the issue of qualified immunity on summary judgment.

  On October 28, 2003, plaintiff moved for summary judgment and on December 19, 2003, defendant filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. The parties agree that no dispute exists as to any material fact and they now seek resolution as a matter of law of the issue of the defense of qualified immunity.

  For the reasons which follow, we now grant defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment and deny as moot plaintiff's motion. Page 3

  STANDARD FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

  Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that judgment shall be rendered where it is shown that there is "no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."

  Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). Where a moving defendant does not bear the burden of persuasion at trial, he need only point out that "there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2554, 91 L.Ed.2d 265, 275 (1986).

  FINDINGS OF FACT

  Based upon the pleadings, record papers, depositions, declarations and exhibits of the parties, the undersigned makes the following findings of fact:

  1. Plaintiff Kenneth Donaldson was convicted of possession of a controlled substance*fn1 in the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania on September 19, 2000.*fn2

  2. On October 31, 2000, plaintiff was sentenced to Page 4 serve not less than twelve, nor more than thirty-six, months in a state correctional institution.*fn3

  3. Plaintiff appealed his conviction to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania and received updates on the status of his Page 5 appeal from his trial attorney, Lehigh County Deputy Public Defender Karen J. Schular.*fn4

  4. In or around February 2001, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole approved plaintiff for parole after the expiration of his minimum sentence.*fn5

  5. Defendant Agent Scott Mugavero of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole was assigned to supervise plaintiff's parole until the expiration of his maximum sentence on March 1, 2003.*fn6

  6. During plaintiff's first meeting with defendant, Mr. Mugavero reviewed with plaintiff the conditions of plaintiff's parole, including the condition that plaintiff not leave the state without permission and that he not possess a cell phone.*fn7

  7. On November 13, 2001, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania granted plaintiff's appeal, vacating his sentence Page 6 and remanding the case for a new trial.*fn8 Page 7

  8. In or around November 2001, Attorney Schular informed both plaintiff and defendant that the Superior Court had granted his appeal.*fn9

  9. At that time, plaintiff personally informed defendant that the Superior Court had granted his appeal, and defendant told plaintiff to keep him informed as to the status of the appeal process.*fn10

  10. Defendant did not hear from Attorney Schular again until September 27, 2002.*fn11

  11. In or around December 2001, the Lehigh County District Attorney's Office filed a petition for allocatur to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania from the November 13, 2001 decision of the Superior Court.

  12. The frequency of the meetings between plaintiff and defendant decreased from twice a month to once a month beginning in 2002.*fn12

  13. On June 19, 2002, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the decision of the Superior Court Page 8 vacating plaintiff's sentence.*fn13 Page 9

  14. In the summer of 2002, Attorney Schular informed plaintiff of the Supreme Court's decision and advised him to continue reporting to defendant until the underlying drug charges were nolle prossed.*fn14

  15. On September 11, 2002, Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas Judge Robert L. Steinberg granted leave to the District Attorney to nolle pros the charges against plaintiff, which Order was filed September 13, 2002.*fn15

  16. In mid-September 2002, plaintiff's girlfriend informed defendant that plaintiff was working in New Jersey without permission and that he possessed a cell phone.*fn16

  17. On September 18, 2002, defendant submitted a Delinquency Request Form to the Parole Board citing "technical" parole violations of working out of state without permission and possessing a cell phone.*fn17

  18. On September 19, 2002, the Parole Board declared plaintiff "delinquent" and issued a Warrant to Commit or Page 10 Detain plaintiff.*fn18 Page 11

  19. On September 19, 2002, defendant, along with Parole Supervisor John Becker and two other parole agents, arrested plaintiff for his technical parole violations pursuant to the warrant.*fn19

  20. Attorney Schular learned of plaintiff's incarceration while checking on the status of the nolle pros on September 27, 2002, and called defendant immediately to inform him that the charges against plaintiff had been nolle prossed.*fn20

  21. On September 27, 2002, defendant sent an Order to Release from Temporary Detention or to Cancel Warrant to Commit and Detain to the Lehigh County Prison, and plaintiff was released the same day.*fn21

  CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

  Applying the summary judgment standard to the Page 12 undisputed facts recited above, we find as a matter of law that defendant Mugavero is entitled to qualified immunity from plaintiff's unlawful arrest claim.

  DISCUSSION

  The facts of this case are not in dispute. The parties agree that defendant arrested plaintiff on September 19, 2002, although the charges against plaintiff had been nolle prossed on September 13, 2002. At issue is the defense of qualified immunity, wherein defendant asserts that he did not know that the charges against plaintiff had been nolle prossed at the time of the arrest, or at any time prior to plaintiff's release, and that a reasonable official under the circumstances would not have known that his actions would violate plaintiff's rights. For the reasons explained below, we find that defendant is entitled to qualified immunity from plaintiff's claim and, accordingly, enter judgment in defendant's favor.

  To defeat the defense of qualified immunity asserted by the defendant in this case, plaintiff must prove that defendant violated his "basic, unquestioned constitutional right" and that defendant knew or reasonably should have known that his conduct would violate that right. Harlow v. Page 13

  Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 815, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2737, 73 L.Ed.2d 396, 408 (1982).

  The court must consider two questions as a matter of law: 1) taken in the light most favorable to plaintiff, "do the facts show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right?"; and 2) was the right clearly established-meaning were the contours of the right "sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he was doing violates that right." Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201-202, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 2156, 150 L.Ed.2d 272, 281-282 (2001). "[O]fficers `who reasonably but mistakenly' conclude that their conduct comports with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment are entitled to immunity." Sharrar v. Felsing, 128 F.3d 810, 826 (1997) (quoting Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 227, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 589 (1991)). The court must determine whether the information possessed by the officer supports the reasonable belief of that officer in the existence of probable cause to arrest. Id. at 828.

  In the instant case, we find that the information possessed by defendant Mugavero from the time of plaintiff's arrest until his release supports defendant's reasonable belief that probable cause existed to arrest plaintiff. Initially, we note that there is no evidence that defendant Page 14 had actual or constructive knowledge that the charges against plaintiff had been nolle prossed until September 27, 2002, the date plaintiff was released. Neither plaintiff nor his attorney notified defendant of the nolle pros prior to September 27 because even they were not aware that the charges had been nolle prossed until that date.

  Moreover, the information which defendant did possess when arresting plaintiff supports his reasonable belief that probable cause existed for the arrest. Specifically, defendant relied on a Warrant to Commit and Detain plaintiff issued by the Parole Board after plaintiff was deemed "delinquent" by the Parole Board. Defendant was also aware of the bases for such warrant, having received and reported information from plaintiff's girlfriend that plaintiff was in violation of his parole by working out of state without permission and possessing a cell phone. Such information supports as reasonable, though mistaken, the belief by defendant that he had probable cause to arrest plaintiff on September 19, 2002.

  Thus, we find that defendant is entitled to qualified immunity from plaintiff's claim of unlawful arrest. Because defendant is entitled to qualified immunity from plaintiff's only claim, defendant is entitled to judgment as a Page 15 matter of law and we need not consider the merits of plaintiff's motion for summary judgment.

  CONCLUSION

  For all the foregoing reasons, we grant defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment, deny as moot plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, and enter judgment in favor of defendant.


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