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Albert v. Commonwealth


February 1, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Yvette Kane, Chief Judge United States District Court


Plaintiff, Derrick Albert, an inmate at the State Correctional Institution in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, commenced this action with a pro se civil rights complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983. Named as defendants in the action are the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,*fn1 the Lebanon County Public Defender's Office ("Public Defender"), the Lebanon County District Attorney's Office ("District Attorney"), and the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas ("trial court"). Presently pending before the court are two motions to dismiss filed on behalf of the defendants. (Docs. 14 & 18.) For the reasons that follow, the motions will be granted and the complaint will be dismissed.

I. Background

Plaintiff's civil rights action against the various defendants arises out of his March 1, 2006 conviction*fn2 in the Court of Common Pleas of Lebanon County under 18 Pa. C.S. § 4116, for possession, with intent to sell, of 1,553 counterfeit and pirated music compact discs without the true name of the manufacturer's name on the package or label. Plaintiff had been arrested by the Pennsylvania State Police for possession of these items on September 13, 2004. (Doc. 20 at 17.) In the present complaint, Plaintiff has essentially alleged that his trial in Lebanon County was in violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause of the United States Constitution because he had been subject to similar charges in a prior criminal proceeding in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Plaintiff had been arrested in Massachusetts on February 21, 2003, and charged with possession with intent to sell or distribute 606 counterfeit compact discs. (Doc. 4 at 2.)

Specifically, as to Defendants, Plaintiff first alleges that Brian L. Deiderick of the Public Defender's Office allowed an illegal trial to proceed even though Plaintiff had been charged with similar crimes in Massachusetts. Second, Plaintiff avers that Assistant District Attorney David Dresher prosecuted the case despite it allegedly being barred by double jeopardy. And, third, Plaintiff asserts that the trial judge, the Honorable Robert J. Eby, would not allow him to terminate Attorney Deiderick in order to hire a private attorney. Plaintiff requests this court dismiss the charges against him or allow a trial in federal court; award him monetary damages; and, order an investigation into his case. (Doc. 1 at 3.)

On August 29, 2006, the Public Defender's Office and the District Attorney's Office jointly filed a motion to dismiss (Doc. 14), accompanied by a brief in support. (Doc. 15.) On September 18, 2006, the trial court filed a motion to dismiss (Doc. 18), with a brief in support. (Doc. 19.) These motions have been fully briefed by the parties and are ripe for disposition.

II. Discussion

A court, in rendering a decision on a motion to dismiss, must accept the veracity of the plaintiff's allegations. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974); White v. Napolean, 897 F.2d 103, 106 (3d Cir. 1990). In Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63 (3d Cir. 1996), the Third Circuit Court of Appeals added that when considering a motion to dismiss based on a failure to state a claim argument, a court should "not inquire whether the plaintiffs will ultimately prevail, only whether they are entitled to offer evidence to support their claims." Id. at 65. "[A] complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957).

"The test in reviewing a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is whether, under any reasonable reading of the pleadings, plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Holder v. City of Allentown, 987 F.2d 188, 194 (3d Cir. 1993). Additionally, a court must "accept as true the facts alleged in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from them." Markowitz v. Northeast Land Co., 906 F.2d 100, 103 (3d Cir. 1990). Finally, it is equally well-settled that pro se complaints should be liberally construed. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972).

In light of the standards set forth above and Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the court will now discuss Defendants' motions to dismiss in response to Plaintiff's complaint.

Each of Plaintiff's claims stems from his assertion that his conviction is invalid because he was denied a fair trial in Lebanon County on the basis of double jeopardy because of a prior criminal proceeding in Massachusetts which involved similar charges. In response, Defendants first argue that under the law enunciated by the United States Supreme Court in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), Plaintiff has failed to state a cognizable claim. In particular, Defendants argue that because Plaintiff was found guilty on one count of possession with intent to sell counterfeit and pirated music compact discs on March 1, 2006, and because that conviction has not been overturned, expunged or otherwise resolved in Plaintiff's favor, Plaintiff fails to set forth a cognizable § 1983 claim under Heck.

In Heck, the United States Supreme Court held that: in order to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254. A claim for damages bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence that has not been so invalidated is not cognizable under § 1983.

Heck, 512 U.S. at 486-87 (footnotes omitted). In other words, an action for damages that implicates the validity of an inmate's continued confinement is barred until that confinement has been declared invalid by a state tribunal or federal habeas corpus court.

In his opposition to the motions to dismiss, Plaintiff provides a lengthy explanation of facts relating to his arrest and prosecution in both Massachusetts and Lebanon County.*fn3

However, these facts and arguments are irrelevant in light of the fact that there has been no finding by any court that Plaintiff's conviction in the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas is invalid. Without that finding, this court concludes that Heck v. Humphrey precludes Plaintiff's claims arising out of his conviction in Lebanon County for possession with the intent to sell counterfeit and pirated music compact discs.

The court now turns to Defendants' other issues set forth in their motions to dismiss.*fn4

Specifically, Plaintiff's claims involving his alleged illegal trial, as set forth above, are against members of the Public Defender's Office, the District Attorney's Office, and the Lebanon County trial court. The court will discuss the claims with respect to each office in turn.

Plaintiff claims, first, that the Public Defender's Office, namely Attorney Deiderick, allowed a trial to proceed despite having evidence that would lead him to believe the trial was in violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's claim fails.

Section 1983 provides that persons acting under color of state law may be found liable if they deprive an individual of "any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws" of the United States. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To state a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must plead two essential elements: (1) the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and (2) the conduct deprived the plaintiff of a right, privilege, or immunity secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. Groman v. Township of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 638 (3d Cir. 1995); Shaw v. Strackhouse, 920 F.2d 1135, 1141-42 (3d Cir. 1990).

To the extent that Plaintiff attempts to hold Attorney Deiderick liable under § 1983, it is well established that defense attorneys, no matter whether they are privately retained, court-appointed, or employed as public defenders, do "not act under color of state law when performing a lawyer's traditional functions as counsel to a defendant in a criminal proceeding." Polk County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 325 (1981). Accordingly, since the allegations against Attorney Deiderick are all premised on actions he took while serving as Plaintiff's defense counsel, the § 1983 claim against the Public Defender's Office will be dismissed.

Second, Plaintiff claims that the District Attorney's Office, namely Attorney Dresher, prosecuted a case that should have been barred under the principle of double jeopardy. For the reasons that follow, this claim also fails.

The doctrine of absolute immunity shields prosecutors from liability related to their official acts. Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 417-19 (1976). A prosecutor is absolutely immune from liability under § 1983 for acts "within the scope of his duties in initiating and pursuing a criminal prosecution." Id. at 410. There is nothing in the instant complaint to suggest that Attorney Dresher was acting outside of the scope of his duty as prosecutor in proceeding with the case against Plaintiff in Lebanon County. As such, the § 1983 claim against the District Attorney's Office is also subject to dismissal.

Third, Plaintiff names the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas as a defendant in his complaint under § 1983. Specifically, Plaintiff claims that the Honorable Robert J. Eby would not allow Plaintiff to terminate Attorney Deiderick and hire a private attorney to represent him in the case against him. This claims also fails.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that a § 1983 action against a "State and its Board of Corrections [state agency] is barred by the Eleventh Amendment, unless [the State] has consented to the filing of such a suit." Alabama v. Pugh, 438 U.S. 781, 782 (1978). In Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989), the Supreme Court reiterated its position that state agencies are not "persons" subject to liability in § 1983 actions brought in federal court. The Court noted that a § 1983 suit against a state official's office was "no different from a suit against the State itself." Id. at 71. "Will establishes that the State and arms of the State, which have traditionally enjoyed Eleventh Amendment immunity, are not subject to suit under § 1983 in either federal or state court." Howlett v. Rose, 496 U.S. 356, 365 (1990). Moreover, recognizing that state courts are state rather than local agencies, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has concluded that state courts, such as the trial court in the present case, could not be sued because "they are not persons within section 1983." Callahan v. Philadelphia, 207 F.3d 668, 673 (3d Cir. 2000). Therefore, the claim against the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas will be dismissed.*fn5

III. Conclusion

For the reasons set forth above, this action will be dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for Plaintiff's failure to state a claim. An appropriate order will follow.

IV. Order

AND NOW, this 1st day of February, 2007, upon consideration of Defendants' motions to dismiss (Docs. 14 & 18), IT IS HEREBY ORDERED THAT:

1. Defendants' motions to dismiss (Docs. 14 & 18) are GRANTED.

2. The complaint (Doc. 1) is DISMISSED for failure to state a claim.

3. The Clerk of Court is directed to CLOSE this case.

4. Any appeal from this Order will be deemed frivolous, without probable cause and not taken in good faith.

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