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Frederick v. Hanna

November 1, 2006

MARTIN FREDERICK AND BARBARA FREDERICK, HIS WIFE, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ELIAS HANNA, JOHN JOHNSON, MANOR BOROUGH, OFFICER STEFFEY AND PENN TOWNSHIP, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambrose, Chief District Judge.

OPINION and ORDER OF COURT

SYNOPSIS

In this civil action, Plaintiffs claim that Defendants, who are police officers and their employers, violated their rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the state and federal constitutions, and committed several common law torts. All of the claims arise out of a series of events stemming from a traffic stop and subsequent confrontation at Plaintiffs' place of business, and culminating in the arrest of husband-Plaintiff and both Plaintiffs' guilty pleas on charges of disorderly conduct.

In brief, Plaintiffs contend that Defendant Hanna, a police officer employed by Manor Borough, approached Plaintiffs' business premises with the stated purpose of investigating an expired vehicle registration plate. A confrontation ensued, during which both Defendant Steffey, a police officer employed by Penn Township, and wife-Plaintiff arrived on the scene. Husband-Plaintiff was arrested and transported to the police department, and then Officers Hanna and Johnson transferred him to county prison. Both Plaintiffs were charged with various crimes, and each pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. They were not, ultimately, prosecuted on any other charge.

All Defendants have filed Motions for Summary Judgment. Officer Steffey and Penn Township seek judgment on all of Plaintiffs' claims against them; the remaining Defendants seek judgment on all claims other than a single excessive force claim.

For the following reasons, Defendants' Motions will be granted in part and denied in part.

DISCUSSION

A. FACTS

Unless otherwise indicated, the following facts are undisputed.

On April 19, 2003, husband-Plaintiff and Plaintiffs' employee, John Konechny, were washing a 1995 silver Toyota Tercel at a car wash. In order to wash the car, husband-Plaintiff removed the license plate, and then replaced it prior to leaving the car wash. While at the car wash, Defendant Hanna, a Manor Borough police officer, observed them washing the car without a plate, and then saw husband-Plaintiff fasten a plate onto the car. The plate was not securely fastened to the vehicle; it was falling off. When the vehicle left the car wash, Officer Hanna followed, and, at some point while on the roadway, observed that the registration sticker on the plate was expired. Officer Hanna then followed the car to Plaintiffs' place of business, and activated his lights. The parties dispute whether the lights were activated at the time that Defendant Hanna pulled into Plaintiffs' property, or during the drive from the car wash to Plaintiffs' property.

At some point, Defendant Hanna radioed dispatch to call in the license plate, and received a report of a "dead" plate. A dead plate indicated either that the vehicle lacked insurance, or that the plate or vehicle was stolen. Defendant Hanna was also advised that the license plate did not match the car that the men were driving.

Husband-Plaintiff and Mr. Konechny drove the vehicle into a garage located at Plaintiffs' place of business, a detail shop located at 160 Race Street. The garage was not open to the general public, but only to employees, former employees, or casual laborers. Defendant Hanna stopped his vehicle at the entrance to the garage, blocking the other vehicle into the garage. The two men exited the Toyota, and husband-Plaintiff removed the license plate from the car and placed it in the garage.

Husband-Plaintiff testified that he placed the plate into a plastic file mounted to the wall in front of the garage. There is also some evidence that he placed the plate toward the rear of the garage. Defendant Hanna then asked him for the plate; husband-Plaintiff did not, however, produce the plate that was removed from the vehicle. Husband-Plaintiff waved his arms, used profanity, and yelled at Defendant Hanna at some point during the confrontation. At some point, husband-Plaintiff obtained a license plate from another vehicle and offered it to Defendant Hanna.

At some point thereafter, Defendant Hanna entered the garage and obtained the invalid license plate. He obtained the plate on his own, he testified, because he was concerned that the evidence could be destroyed had he waited to obtain a warrant. During the course of events, husband-Plaintiff repeatedly ordered Defendant Hanna to leave his property.

At some point, Defendant Hanna obtained Mr. Konechny's drivers license number and called it in to dispatch. Mr. Konechny attempted to write down Defendant Hanna's license plate number, and Defendant requested that he stand in front of the vehicle. Husband-Plaintiff then attempted to go back into the garage and close the garage door; Defendant Hanna tried to pull the door open. Defendant Hanna then called for backup. Either before or after the garage door incident, Defendant Hanna told husband-Plaintiff that he was under arrest; husband-Plaintiff then moved to the back of the garage. Defendant Hanna perceived that he was attempting to avoid the arrest.

Defendant Hanna then asked husband-Plaintiff to exit the garage and put his hands on the police car. Husband-Plaintiff put his hands behind his back, and then, as he was being handcuffed, thought he had done nothing wrong, and then spun around to face Defendant Hanna, with his hands at his sides. He then avers that Defendant Hanna started to choke him. At some point thereafter, Defendant Hanna pepper sprayed him. Plaintiffs aver that husband-Plaintiff walked away from the officer about six to eight feet, and then was sprayed. He was then handcuffed, and placed in Defendant Hanna's police car.

Plaintiffs proffer that husband-Plaintiff remained in the police car, without medical treatment, for up to forty-six minutes, before he ultimately received treatment at the police station. There is no allegation of injury from the pepper spray, other than temporary burning.

After husband-Plaintiff was placed in the police car, backup police officers arrived, including Defendant Steffey, a Penn Township police officer. Defendant Steffey had been dispatched to assist Officer Hanna with a disorderly person and aggravated assault. Defendant Hanna told Officer Steffey that he had witnessed a man put a plate on the car at the car wash, had followed the car, turned on his lights, the car did not stop but turned into the garage, and then the man came out and took the plate off the car. He also told Defendant Steffey that there had been an altercation between him and husband-Plaintiff.

Penn Township had a general policy to obtain a vehicle identification number ("VIN") in the case of a falsified plate, or a plate removed from a vehicle, in order to verify ownership and determine whether the vehicle is stolen.

Defendant Steffey then entered the garage, walked up to the car, and attempted to get the VIN off the dashboard. He experienced some problem with transmitting the VIN number through Defendant Steffey's radio, so he entered the garage for a second time to get the VIN. Wife-Plaintiff then arrived, and blocked his path. He advised her that he needed to obtain the VIN from the vehicle, and that he would leave as soon as he had done so. He obtained the VIN from the dash and properly transmitted the information. Wife-Plaintiff avers that when she attempted to move toward the vehicle to show the officers the VIN on the door post, Defendant Steffey shoved her backwards and she caught herself by grabbing the car. She suffered no immediate pain, but later received medical treatment for a whiplash-type injury. After the incident, she left the garage to go down to a car lot; when she returned, the officers were gone. She then proceeded to the police station.

Husband-Plaintiff was, eventually, transported to the Manor Borough Police Department, where he received medical treatment for the effects of the pepper spray. He was then transported to a holding cell. Defendant Johnson was not involved in any of the incidents alleged prior to the transportation of husband-Plaintiff to the Westmoreland County Jail on April 20, 2003.

Husband-Plaintiff avers that at the County Jail, he saw wife-Plaintiff and their business partner. He tried to speak with his wife, but Defendant Hanna grabbed his hair and shoved him backwards and forwards, tripped him, and tried to drive his face into the curb. Plaintiffs further allege that Defendant ...


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