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Porter v. Gray

February 13, 2007

ALLIE L. PORTER, III, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THOMAS E. GRAY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: McLAUGHLIN, Sean J., District J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

On December 24, 2003, Plaintiff Allie L. Porter, III was arrested for arson and related charges stemming from a fire which severely damaged his property. Porter has filed this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983*fn1 against the lead investigating and arresting officer, Detective Thomas E. Gray, alleging that the arrest was without probable cause and racially motivated. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343(a)(3).

Presently pending before the Court is a motion by the Defendant for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth herein, the motion will be granted.

I. BACKGROUND FACTS*fn2

Plaintiff, an African-American male, is the owner of a single family residence located at 2213 East 18th Street, in the City of Erie (hereinafter, the "Property"). Plaintiff formerly shared the residence with Tammie Porter, then his wife. Sometime prior to Thanksgiving of 2001, Plaintiff and Tammie separated. (Doc. # 25-2; 30-6, p. 16.) For awhile thereafter, Plaintiff continued to reside at the Property with his son, Allie Porter IV. (Doc. # 30-6 at pp. 18-19.)

In or around January of 2002, Plaintiff's girlfriend, Chaka Sparks, gave birth to a baby girl fathered by Plaintiff. (Doc. # 30-6, pp. 16-19, 27.) Around that time, Plaintiff and his son moved out of the Property and into the home of Ms. Sparks. (Id.) At some point, Plaintiff's elder daughter, Crystal Porter, then 19 years of age, moved into the Property and resided there. (Id. at pp.18-19; # 30-2, pp. 2, 5.) Plaintiff would frequently stop by the Property and continued to assume responsibility for the mortgage payments. (Doc. # 30-6 at pp. 19-20, 24; # 30-2, pp. 2, 4-5.) The utility bills also continued to be in his name. (Doc. # 30-6 at pp. 23, 27.)

In February of 2003, Crystal Porter was the victim of a drug related shooting which occurred at the Property. Reportedly, several Dominican individuals had forced their way into the house and shot Crystal in her right thigh over an incident involving stolen drugs. Following the shooting, Crystal did not reside at the Property out of fear for her own safety. (Doc. # 30-2, p. 8.)

On the morning of March 5, 2003, a fire occurred at the Property, which resulted in extensive damage to Plaintiff's house and minor damage to the adjacent residence. The first person on the scene was a witness working nearby in the neighborhood. Believing the residence might be occupied, the witness kicked in the front door, only to find that he could not safely enter the house due to heavy smoke and flames. In fact, the house was unoccupied at the time and, according to the complaint, no one had been living there for several months. (See First Amended Complaint ¶ 11.)

The Erie Fire Department was called to the scene at approximately 6:46 a.m. and, upon arrival, began to extinguish the fire. After the fire was put out, members from the Erie Fire Investigation Unit were called in to investigate the cause and origin of the fire. Plaintiff, who had arrived on the scene at approximately 7:10 a.m., was interviewed by Lt. Richard Sadlier of the EFD and stated that he had been at work at the time the fire was reported. According to Lt. Sadlier's report, Plaintiff stated that he had been by the Property at approximately 5:30 a.m. that morning to check on a dog that was being kept in the rear yard for security purposes. (Doc. # 25-22; 25-37; 30-6 at pp. 40-41.) He further stated that only he and his daughter had keys to the residence and that he had secured the residence earlier that night.*fn3

A criminal investigation was undertaken on behalf of the Erie Police Department by Defendant Gray, a detective certified as a fire inspector and specializing in property crimes. Plaintiff was interviewed by Detective Gray at the scene of the fire and stated that he had last been inside the house at about 10:00 p.m. the night before the fire, for about 15 minutes, to drop off some clothes. He also mentioned that he had two dogs which he had removed from the Property at that time. Detective Gray also spoke with Plaintiff's father, who advised Gray that "the Dominicans" were reportedly back in town and may have set the fire. Plaintiff's father did not know whom he had heard this rumor from but indicated that he would check it out. (Doc. # 30-5, pp. 36-37.)

Because Plaintiff subsequently submitted a claim for fire-related property damage to his insurance company, a third investigation into the cause and origin of the fire was commenced by the insurance company's fire investigation specialist, W. Brian Wydra. Collectively, the investigations revealed that, at the time of the fire, the house windows and doors were secure, except for the front door which had been kicked in by the independent witness. There were otherwise no signs of forced entry into the house. The investigators concluded that the fire had been deliberately set with gasoline used as an accelerant, and it appeared to have originated in the kitchen and rear bedroom area of the house.*fn4 Given the circumstances, Detective Gray believed that a delay device had been used to set the fire, although no evidence was found to confirm what type of device might have been used.

As part of his private investigation, Mr. Wydra interviewed Plaintiff on March 15, 2003. Mr. Wydra recounted the substance of that interview as follows:

When asked to describe the events that led up to the fire at his house, Mr. Porter stated that approximately one or two weeks before the fire someone had shot his daughter while she was in the house located at 2213 East 18th Street. I asked Mr. Porter the age and name of his daughter. Mr. Porter stated that his daughter's name was Chrystl [sic] Porter and that she was 19 years old.

When I asked Mr. Porter to describe the shooting, he stated that his first cousin, Adrena [sic] Logan, approximately 32 to 33 years old, came to visit his daughter. At the same time, three men he described as Dominicans forced their way into his house. They shot his daughter once in the thigh area of her right leg. When I asked Mr. Porter what they shot his daughter with, he stated that they shot her with a pistol. Mr. Porter went on to say that she was okay and, in fact, she was in his pickup truck and pointed to the truck.

I then asked Mr. Porter if his daughter knew who shot her and if she could identify the three Dominicans. He stated that she did not know them. I asked Mr. Porter what motive the Dominicans had to shoot his daughter. Mr. Porter stated that his daughter had taken two black males to buy cocaine somewhere in Erie. Then, supposedly the two black males that she was with had stolen two or three kilos of cocaine from some Dominicans. (Doc. # 26-5, pp. 7-8.)

Plaintiff informed Mr. Wydra that he had spent the night before the fire at his girlfriend's house and that he had left her house around 12:30 a.m. on March 5 when the couple took their 14 month-old daughter to Hamot Medical Center. According to the report, Plaintiff admitted to driving by the Property at about 2:30 a.m. before returning to his girlfriend's house. He claimed that he left his girlfriend's house again to go to work at about 6:50 a.m. and arrived at work at 6:57 a.m.. He stated that he had locked the house the night before the fire and that he and Crystal had each had keys to the house but that he had taken her key away from her. (Doc. # 26-5, pp. 7-8.)

In connection with his investigation into the fire, Detective Gray was privy to Plaintiff's insurance file, including Mr. Wydra's report. Detective Gray was further privy to Lt. Sadlier's report and also took multiple statements from Plaintiff himself.

On April 3, 2003, Gray interviewed Plaintiff using an "Owner Interviewing" form provided by the Department of Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. In this interview, Plaintiff did not state that he had been by the Property at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of the fire. He did state that there were two sets of keys to the Property and that a set was lost. He told Detective Gray that Crystal had one set. (Doc. # 25-18; 30-5 at p. 24.) In response to a specific question on the form as to why the fire may have been set, Plaintiff indicated that he did not know. In addition, during this interview, Plaintiff gave Detective Gray the name of an individual who had allegedly seen Plaintiff and Ms. Sparks near a Giant Eagle store in the early morning hours of March 5.

At some point during his investigation, Detective Gray began to focus on Plaintiff as the prime suspect in the fire. There were several factors which Detective Gray relied upon in focusing his suspicion on Plaintiff. For one, the Property had been unoccupied for some period of time prior to the fire, was apparently secure at the time the fire broke out, and showed no signs of forced entry (other than the front door, which had been kicked in by the independent witness). Plaintiff had stated to Mr. Wydra that he and Crystal possessed keys to the house, but that he had taken Crystal's key away from her. This suggested that Plaintiff had unique access to the Property.

Second, Detective Gray maintains that Plaintiff made several statements concerning his whereabouts on the night of the fire which seemed unusual and/or inconsistent with other information. According to Detective Gray, Plaintiff had admitted being by the Property several times during the night and early morning hours before the fire because he had concerns about the house. (Doc. # 25-16.) Plaintiff acknowledges being at the Property at about 10:00 p.m. the night before the fire for the purpose of dropping off some clothes and collecting his dogs but, according to Detective Gray, Plaintiff gave differing explanations as to why he collected his dogs -- allegedly stating on one occasion that he had retrieved them because he intended to sell them on eBay and, on another occasion, stating that he had gotten them because they had an appointment with the groomer the next day. Plaintiff had also admitted driving by the Property at about 2:30 in the morning on March 5 on his way back from Hamot Medical Center. According to Detective Gray, Plaintiff had offered the name of "Curtis Carr" or "Kirky Carr"*fn5 as an individual who had seen Plaintiff near the Giant Eagle where Plaintiff and Ms. Sparks had stopped to get some Pedialite on their way back to Ms. Spark's house; however, when Detective Gray interviewed Mr. Carr, he denied knowing Plaintiff. (Doc. # 25-8.) Detective Gray also insists that Plaintiff admitted being by the Property at 5:30 a.m. on the morning of the fire. According to Defendant Gray, Plaintiff also admitted this fact to Lt. Sadlier of the Erie Fire Department but, in other accounts, denied that the 5:30 a.m. visit occurred. (Doc. # 25-16.) These alleged inconsistencies led Detective Gray to conclude that Plaintiff was not being truthful.

Third, Detective Gray concluded that Plaintiff had a financial motive for setting the fire. During the course of his investigation, Detective Gray became aware that Plaintiff was behind on certain utility bills at the Property which were in his name and that he was also carrying two high interest mortgages on the Property as well as a high interest loan on his vehicle. Detective Gray concluded that Plaintiff had a cash flow problem in that his income every month was insufficient to meet his expenses. (Doc. # 25-20; 25-21.)

Fourth, Detective Gray believed there was evidence demonstrating Plaintiff's intent to set the fire. It is undisputed that investigators concluded the fire was incendiary in nature. Detective Gray opined from his inspection of the premises that the house was sparsely furnished and that there was a conspicuous lack of personal effects, suggesting that valuables may have purposefully been removed ahead of time. In addition, Plaintiff had removed his dogs the night before the fire. Detective Gray also believed that the house was insured for an amount in excess of what it would cost to rebuild and that a claim had been made for more items than were actually in the home. Most significantly, however, Detective Gray was suspicious of the fact that, on the day prior to the fire, Plaintiff had taken Tammie Porter's name off of the insurance policy, ostensibly leaving Plaintiff as the sole beneficiary of any insurance proceeds.

Finally, Detective Gray concluded that there was a lack of any credible leads as to other suspects who could have started the fire. Although Detective Gray was aware of Crystal Porter's shooting -- allegedly at the hands of several Dominicans -- and although the family had given the police information that the Dominicans were reportedly back in town and may have set the fire, Crystal did not initially provide any specific information as to the identity of her attackers. (Doc. # 25-6; 25-8; 30-2, at p.25.) Detective Gray made a general inquiry with the Erie Police Department's drug and vice unit about the rumor that the "Dominicans" were back in town but was told that his colleagues had no information concerning this rumor. (Doc. # 26-4.) Detective Gray also believed that the fire in question did not fit the profile of a retaliatory arson because there had been no sign that the fire was started in a violent manner by, e.g., use of a "Molotov cocktail." (Doc. # 25-28.) Additionally, at the time of the fire, there was a large rotweiller penned in Porter's backyard. Gray believed that anyone entering from the rear of the house would have been confronted by this dog, yet Porter's next door neighbor, who was interviewed, made no report of having heard the dog that morning. (Doc. # 30-5, p. 37.)

Citing many (though not all) of the above factors, Detective Gray obtained several search warrants for Plaintiff's credit and financial records.*fn6 On December 24, 2003, Detective Gray obtained a warrant for Plaintiff's arrest. Plaintiff was charged with arson, causing or risking a catastrophe, criminal mischief, recklessly endangering another person, and insurance fraud. He was eventually tried in the Erie County Court of Common Pleas in August of 2004. By the second day of trial, all charges were dismissed on the ground that there was insufficient evidence to warrant submitting Plaintiff's case to the jury.

Plaintiff subsequently filed this suit, asserting that Detective Gray violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and not to have warrants issued against him without probable cause. Plaintiff's theory is that Detective Gray immediately focused upon him as the likely suspect and intentionally ignored or declined to investigate facts which, if uncovered, would have negated probable cause for the arrest. Plaintiff maintains that Detective Gray executed affidavits in support of the various warrants which included knowingly false and intentionally misleading information and/or which omitted facts that were material to the district judge's probable cause determination. Moreover, Plaintiff alleges that Detective Gray conducted his investigation in this manner because of Plaintiff's race, thus depriving him of his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection of the laws. Defendant Gray has moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff's § 1983 claims.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment should be awarded when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). In applying this standard, we view all of the evidence of record in the light most favorable to, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of, Plaintiff, the non-moving party. MBIA Ins. Corp. v. Royal Indem. Co., 426 F.3d 204, 209 (3d Cir.2005).

III. DISCUSSION

To prevail on a claim brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Plaintiff must establish that the Defendant : (1) acted under color of state law; and (2) deprived Plaintiff of a right secured by the Constitution. Groman v. Township of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 633 (3d Cir. 1995). As noted, Plaintiff asserts violations of his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, which we will address in order.

A. PLAINTIFF'S FOURTH AMENDMENT CLAIMS

The Warrant Clause of the Fourth Amendment provides that "no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation." U.S. CONST. AMEND. IV. To succeed in a § 1983 action for false arrest made pursuant to a warrant, the Plaintiff must prove that (1) the officer "knowingly and deliberately, or with a reckless disregard for the truth, made false statements or omissions that create a falsehood in applying for a warrant;" and (2) that "such statements or omissions are material, or necessary, to the finding of probable cause." Wilson v. Russo, 212 F.3d 781, 786-87 (3d Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). See also Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154, 171-72 (1978). This standard applies both to search warrants and arrest warrants. See Sherwood v. Mulvihill, 113 F.3d 396, 399 (3d Cir. 1997) (challenge to search warrant); Wilson, supra, at 786 (challenge to arrest warrant).

A showing that the officer acted with negligence or innocent mistake is insufficient. Wilson, 212 F.3d at 787. Rather, a plaintiff must show that the officer acted with at least a reckless disregard for the truth. This mens rea is shown if the officer "withholds a fact in his ken that any reasonable person would have known ... was the kind of thing the judge would wish to know." Wilson, supra, at 788 (internal quotation and alteration omitted). Alternatively, an officer makes an assertion with reckless disregard for the truth when, "viewing all the evidence, the [officer] must have entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his statements or had obvious reasons to doubt the accuracy of the information he reported." Id.

In determining the materiality of the misstatement or omission, the court must "excise the offending inaccuracies and insert the facts recklessly omitted, and then determine whether or not the 'corrected' warrant affidavit would establish probable cause." Wilson, supra, at 789. The existence of probable cause is fatal to Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claim. See Herman v. City of Millville, 66 Fed. Appx. 363, 365, 2003 WL 21007244 at **2 (3d Cir. May 5, 2003) (probable cause is a complete defense to Fourth Amendment claims); Groman, 47 F.3d at 634 (to prevail on a claim of false arrest under § 1983, plaintiffs would have to prove lack of probable cause to arrest). This is true irrespective of the outcome of Plaintiff's criminal proceedings. See Wright v. City of Philadelphia, 409 F.3d 595, 602 (3d Cir. 2005) ("[I]t is irrelevant to the probable cause analysis what crime a suspect is eventually charged with ... or whether a person is later acquitted of the crime for which she or he was arrested.") (internal citations and quotations omitted).

In sum, then, our analysis is two part. First, we consider whether the historical facts of record, construed most favorably to Plaintiff, would support a finding that Detective Gray made statements or omissions in his affidavits that he "'knew [were] false, or would have known [were] false except for his reckless disregard for the truth.'" Wilson v. Russo, 212 F.3d at 787 (quoting United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 923 (1984)). Assuming this mens rea element ...


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