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Barr v. City of Beaver Falls

October 26, 2007

CHRISTINE BARR, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF CHRISTOPHER M. BARR, DECEASED, ON BEHALF OF THE ESTATE OF CHRISTOPHER M. BARR, DECEASED, AND CHRISTINE BARR, ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF CHRISTOPHER M. BARR, DECEASED, ON BEHALF OF THE NEXT OF KIN OF CHRISTOPHER M. BARR, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY OF BEAVER FALLS, JEFF BECZE AND CURT COUPER, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terrence F. McVerry United States District Court Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

Before the Court for disposition are DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS/MOTION FOR A MORE DEFINITE STATEMENT (Document No. 4), with brief in support (Document No. 5), Plaintiff's Response to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss/Motion for a More Definite Statement (Document No. 6), and Plaintiff's Brief in Opposition to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss/Motion for a More Definite Statement (Document No. 7).

Background

Plaintiff Christine Barr ("Barr") initially commenced this action in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas of Beaver County. Defendants City of Beaver Falls ("Beaver Falls"), Jeff Becze ("Becze") and Curt Couper ("Couper") removed this case to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441 on March 16, 2007. Doc. No. 1. On May 21, 2007, Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss/Motion for a More Definite Statement pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and 12(e). Doc. No. 4. Since the matter comes before the Court in this posture, the allegations contained in the complaint are assumed to be true. Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 127 S.Ct. 2499, 2509 (2007). Although "heightened fact pleading of specifics" is not required for a plaintiff to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corporation v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974 (2007).

Barr is the administratrix of the Estate of Christopher M. Barr ("Christopher"), having been duly appointed by the Probate Court of Mahoning County, Ohio, on November 16, 2005. Doc. No. 1-3, ¶ 1. She resides in New Waterford, Ohio. Id. She brings this action on behalf of the next of kin of Christopher, who is deceased, seeking to recover damages for Christopher's parents, siblings, and daughters. Id., ¶ 2.

Beaver Falls is a city in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Id., ¶ 3. At all relevant times, Beaver Falls operated and governed the Beaver Falls Police Department ("Police Department"). Id., ¶ 4. Becze resides in Beaver County, where he is a captain in the Police Department. Id., ¶ 5. At all times relevant to this case, he was acting within the scope of his employment. Id. Couper is also a resident of Beaver County, where he serves as a police officer. Id., ¶ 6. He was acting within the scope of his employment during the incident at issue. Id. Beaver Falls designed, created, promulgated, adopted and implemented the policies, procedures, rules, regulations and customs governing the operation and management of the Police Department and the hiring, supervision, training and conduct of its police officers. Id., ¶¶ 10-11.

The events described in the complaint allegedly occurred on January 25, 2005. Id., ¶ 12. Christopher was operating a vehicle with damaged right tires in White Township, which is within Beaver County. Id., ¶ 13. David Stanislawski ("Stanislawski"), an officer with the Patterson Police Department, attempted to have Christopher pull over. Id., ¶ 13. When Christopher failed to do so, Stanislawski activated the lights on his police car and began to pursue Christopher. Id., ¶ 14. This low-speed chase continued into Beaver Falls, where additional police officers joined the pursuit. Id., ¶ 15. On 12th Avenue, Christopher's vehicle became stuck in snow. Id., ¶ 16. Members of the Police Department surrounded Christopher's vehicle and ordered him to get out. Id., ¶ 17. One officer approached the vehicle and opened the door on the driver's side. Id., ¶ 18. Christopher then shot himself in the chest. Id., ¶ 19. As Christopher was shooting himself in the chest, Becze and Couper fired their guns into the vehicle, hitting Christopher in the shoulder five times.*fn1 Id. These multiple shootings are alleged to have occurred simultaneously. Id.

Discussion

Barr's complaint contains six counts. Id., ¶¶ 21-56. Counts I, III and V allege that Beaver Falls, Becze and Couper each violated Christopher's Fourth Amendment*fn2 rights. Counts II, IV and VI allege that each of the Defendants violated Christopher's rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Id. These claims are before the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In their Motion to Dismiss/Motion for a More Definite Statement, Defendants essentially seek four different types of relief. First, they seek the dismissal of Barr's due process claims. Doc. No. 4, ¶ 2. Second, they seek the dismissal of the Fourth Amendment claims to the extent that they are based on allegations of an unreasonable search (as opposed to an unreasonable seizure). Id., ¶ 3. Third, they request that any claims for punitive damages asserted against Beaver Falls be dismissed. Id., ¶ 4. Finally, they ask the Court to order a more definite statement with respect to Barr's allegations of an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment, since Becze and Couper cannot raise a meaningful qualified immunity defense on the basis of the vaguely-described facts in the complaint. Id., ¶ 5. The Court will address each of these requests for relief.

Defendants' request that Barr's due process claims be dismissed is based on the idea that because her claims are covered under the "explicit textual source" of the Fourth Amendment, they should not be analyzed under the rubric of substantive due process. Doc. No. 5, p. 3. At the outset, it is worth noting that Barr makes no allegation that Pennsylvania law provides no remedies, or only inadequate remedies, for individuals injured by the random, unauthorized actions of police officers. Thus, her due process claims must rest on the doctrine of substantive, rather than procedural, due process. County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 840, n. 4 (1998)("Respondents do not argue that they were denied due process of law by virtue of the fact that California's post-deprivation procedures and rules of immunity have effectively denied them an adequate opportunity to seek compensation for the state-occasioned deprivation of their son's life."). It is also clear that "[w]here a particular Amendment provides an explicit textual source of constitutional protection against a particular sort of government behavior, that Amendment, not the more generalized notion of substantive due process, must be the guide for analyzing these claims." Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 273 (1994)(plurality opinion)(internal citations omitted). The dispositive question, of course, is whether the allegations are covered by the Fourth Amendment. The text of the Fourth Amendment provides:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

U.S. CONST. amend. IV. Barr purports to proceed with claims under the Fourth Amendment.

In Brower v. County of Inyo, 489 U.S. 593 (1989), the United States Supreme Court explained that "a Fourth Amendment seizure does not occur whenever there is a governmentally caused termination of an individual's freedom of movement (the innocent passerby), nor even whenever there is a governmentally caused and governmentally desired termination of an individual's freedom of movement (the fleeing felon), but only when there is a governmental termination of freedom of movement through means intentionally applied." Brower, 523 U.S. at 844 (emphasis in original). That standard is met here. Barr alleges that Becze and Couper restrained Christopher by surrounding his vehicle, ordering him out of his vehicle, and shooting him while he proceeded to shoot himself. Doc. No. 1-3, ¶¶ 17-19. The termination of Christopher's freedom of movement, as alleged in the complaint, was no accident. Lewis, 523 U.S. at 844 ("We illustrated the point by saying that no Fourth Amendment seizure would take place where a pursuing police car sought to stop the suspect only by the show of authority represented by flashing lights and continuing pursuit, but accidentally stopped the suspect by crashing into him.")(internal quotation marks omitted). The Court construes Barr's complaint to allege that Becze and Couper "seized" Christopher within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Consequently, the Court agrees with Defendants' argument that a substantive due process analysis is inappropriate, and that Counts II, IV and VI must be dismissed. The Court's decision is buttressed by the fact that Barr does not contest (and, hence, apparently agrees with) Defendants' argument that these counts should be dismissed. Doc. No. 6, ¶ 2. The constitutionality of Defendants' actions will ultimately turn on whether the seizure of Christopher was "unreasonable" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

Defendants also ask the Court to dismiss Counts I, III and V to the extent that they are based on allegations of an unreasonable search (as opposed to an unreasonable seizure). Doc. No. 5, pp. 4-5. Barr argues that her allegation that a police officer approached Christopher's vehicle and opened the driver's side door sufficiently states a claim for an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. Doc. No. 7, pp. 4-5. At this point, the Court is convinced that dismissal of Barr's unreasonable search claims would be premature. For purposes of the Fourth Amendment, a "search" occurs upon the infringement of an expectation of privacy that society is prepared to accept as reasonable. Soldal v. Cook County, 506 U.S. 56, 63 (1992). The Supreme Court has recognized that individuals enjoy some degree of constitutional protection for privacy in their automobiles. California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 390 (1985). Although there is a distinction between searches and seizures for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, Barr's complaint is simply too vague to enable the Court to meaningfully evaluate the reasonableness of the "search" at issue. Neither party has gone to great pains to brief the issue, and Defendants do not rely on any authority in support of their position. ...


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