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White v. Probation Office

August 13, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Christopher C. Conner United States District Judge

(Judge Conner)


This is a civil rights action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by pro se plaintiff Anthony White ("White"), who advances claims for malicious prosecution, unlawful arrest and imprisonment, and unlawful search and seizure. Defendants have filed two motions to dismiss (Docs. 20, 23) asserting that White's claims collaterally challenge a criminal conviction for drug and firearm offenses and are therefore precluded by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). In the alternative, defendants Adams County Adult Probation Department (the "Probation Office")*fn1 and Cumberland Township Police Department ("CTPD") allege that the complaint fails to plead facts supporting White's municipal liability claims, and defendant Police Officer Tim Guise ("Guise") contends that he is entitled to qualified immunity. For the reasons that follow, the motions will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. Statement of Facts*fn2

White's complaint contains only minimal factual allegations describing the circumstances surrounding his claim in the instant matter. On March 15, 2006, defendant Probation Office, presumably acting through defendant probation officers Nathan Fazenbaker, Chad Sprankle, and Alan Shipley (collectively "defendant probation officers"), performed a warrantless search of White's vacant room and discovered unspecified contraband articles. (Doc. 1 ¶ IV.1.) Soon thereafter, defendant Guise received notification of the contraband articles, apparently from defendant probation officers. (Id. ¶ IV.2.) Guise performed two additional searches of the room: one without a warrant and one after obtaining a warrant. (Id.) The complaint does not allege whether Guise discovered additional contraband during these searches; however, White was eventually charged based on the items discovered during the searches. (Id. ¶¶ IV.2-.3.) The precise nature of these charges is not specified in the complaint.

Despite these sparse allegations, White has attached a police report of the incident to his materials in opposition to the motions to dismiss. (See Doc. 26 at 4-6.) For purposes of clarity, the court will recount the contents of the police report to the extent that it is consistent with the allegations in White's complaint.*fn3

On March 15, 2006, Guise and defendant probation officers were dispatched to the Western Inn in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where White had rented Room No. 4. (Id. at 4.) Guise, accompanied by probation officers, entered Room No. 4 in search of White but found it vacant. (Id.; Doc. 1 ¶ IV.1.) Guise spoke with a witness while probation officers searched the surrounding area for White. Alan Shipley ("Shipley")*fn4 and other unidentified probation officers located White nearby and arrested him after a brief pursuit. (Doc. 26 at 4.) A search of his person produced a hand scale, and officers discovered a discarded plastic bag containing cocaine base along his flight path.*fn5 (Id.)

Probation officers then initiated a warrantless search of Room No. 4, which yielded a small bag of marijuana. (Doc. 1 ¶ IV.2; Doc. 26 at 5; Doc. 64 at 8 in No. 1:06-CR-0266 (M.D. Pa) [hereinafter "No. 06-CR-0266"]).*fn6 Officers suspended the search and contacted Guise, who entered and secured the room before requesting a search warrant. (Doc. 1 ¶ IV.2; Doc. 26 at 5.) The search resumed after Guise obtained a warrant, and officers discovered a loaded firearm in close proximity to the bag of marijuana. (Doc. 1 ¶ IV.2; Doc. 26 at 5; Doc. 64 at 3 in No. 06-CR-0266) Police also searched an automobile driven by defendant and discovered approximately thirty grams of cocaine base. (Doc. 26 at 5; Doc. 64 at 8 in No. 06-CR-0266.)

On April 4, 2006, White was arraigned on various drug and firearm charges in state court. (Doc. 1 ¶ IV.3; see also Docket, Commonwealth v. White, No. CR-0000094-06 (Pa. Magis. Dist. Ct. 51-3-04)).*fn7 Defendant Adams County District Attorney's Office ("the District Attorney's Office") handled the state court proceedings. (Doc. 1 ¶ IV.3.) A federal grand jury indicted White for similar offenses on August 2, 2006, and the state charges were dropped in favor of federal prosecution. (See Docs. 1, 28 in 06-CR-0266; Docket at 6, Commonwealth v. White, No. CP-01-CR-0000416-2006 (Pa. Ct. Com. Pl. Adams County)). Senior United States District Judge Sylvia H. Rambo presided over a bench trial on July 10-11, 2007, at which White was convicted on five counts of drug, firearm, and immigration crimes.*fn8 (Doc. 64 at 4-10 in No. 06-CR-0266.)

White commenced the instant action May 24, 2007, alleging that defendants' conduct on March 15, 2006 violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free of unlawful arrest, unlawful imprisonment and unlawful searches and seizures. He also contends that the filing of state charges constitutes malicious prosecution. Defendants have filed two motions to dismiss the complaint, both of which assert that White's criminal conviction bars his civil rights action. Guise asserts that he possesses qualified immunity from suit, and CTPD and the Probation Office allege that White has failed to plead facts supporting municipal liability. The parties have fully briefed these issues, which are now ripe for disposition.

II. Standard of Review

Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must "accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Kanter v. Barella, 489 F.3d 170, 177 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 350 (3d Cir. 2005)). Although the court is generally limited in its review to the facts in the complaint, it "may also consider matters of public record, orders, exhibits attached to the complaint and items appearing in the record of the case." Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n.2 (3d Cir. 1994); see also In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997).

Federal notice pleading rules require the complaint to "give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Sershen v. Cholish, No. 3:07-CV-1011, 2007 WL 3146357, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 26, 2007) (quoting Erickson v. Pardus, --- U.S. ---, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200 (2007)). The plaintiff must present facts that, if true, demonstrate a plausible right to relief. See FED. R. CIV. P. 8(a) (stating that the complaint should include "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief"); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, ---U.S. ---, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1965 (2007) (requiring plaintiffs to allege facts sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level"); Victaulic Co. v. Tieman, 499 F.3d 227, 234 (3d Cir. 2007). Thus, courts should not dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim if it "contain[s] either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements necessary to sustain recovery under some viable legal theory." Montville Twp. v. Woodmont Builders LLC, No. 05-4888, 2007 WL 2261567, at *2 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, --- U.S. at ---, 127 S.Ct. at 1969). Under this liberal pleading standard, courts should generally grant plaintiffs leave to amend their claims before dismissing a complaint that is merely deficient. See Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002); Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 116-17 (3d Cir. 2000).

III. Discussion

White advances claims for malicious prosecution, unlawful arrest and imprisonment, and unlawful search and seizure. Defendants assert that his criminal conviction bars these claims. Alternatively, CTPD and the Probation Office asserts that White has failed to plead facts sufficient to sustain municipal liability, and Guise argues that he is entitled to qualified immunity from suit.

A. Preclusion by Virtue of White's Criminal Conviction

In Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), the Supreme Court announced the "favorable-termination rule," which forecloses certain ยง 1983 actions for plaintiffs who have been convicted of ...

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