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Strickland v. Mahoning Township

July 8, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Judge Munley)


Before the court is Defendants Mahoning Township, Mahoning Township Police Department, Officer Audie M. Mertz and Police Chief Mark Zenko's motion to dismiss the complaint. Having been fully briefed, the matter is ripe for disposition.


This case arises out of the November 18, 2006 arrest of plaintiff, his brother Craig Strickland, and James E. Rose, Jr. by police officers from the defendant municipalities. (Complaint (Doc. 1) (hereinafter "Complt.") at ¶ 27). Defendant and Craig Strickland had spent that Saturday working to repair the floor of an Allentown nightclub owned by their friend Rose. (Id.). Sometime in the afternoon, Rose asked the Strickland brothers to help him return three dogs to the Carbon County home of defendant Ralph Fahringer. (Id.). Rose had purchased the dogs from Fahringer on the previous day. (Id.). Plaintiff only reluctantly accompanied Rose. (Id. at ¶ 2). He was tired, had been drinking at the club and had not slept much the previous night. (Id.).

The three men drove to Rose's house and picked up the three dogs, placing them in a cardboard box in the back of Rose's truck. (Id. at ¶ 29). Plaintiff fell asleep in the back of the truck on the way to Fahringer's home in Lehighton, Pennsylvania. (Id. at ¶ 30). He remained asleep in the truck when the three men arrived at Fahringer's home. (Id. at ¶ 31). He learned of a confrontation between Craig Strickland and Rose and Fahringer only after he awoke. (Id.). According to the story plaintiff heard, Craig Strickland first left the truck to return the dogs alone. (Id. at ¶ 31(a)). When he got out of the truck, he noticed that the front door of the house had been opened six or seven inches. (Id.). He informed the person inside the house that he was there to return puppies. (Id.). When Craig Strickland turned around to get the dogs from the truck, a rifle barrel appeared sticking out of the doorway of the Fahringer's home. (Id. at ¶ 31(b)). Craig Strickland saw Ralph Fahringer with a gun. (Id.). Fahringer told Strickland to leave the dogs in the driveway and get off his property. (Id.). Hearing this commotion, Rose got out of the truck to tell Fahringer that he had arrived to return the dogs and get his money back. (Id. at ¶ 31(c)). Fahringer then opened the door more widely and aimed his rifle directly at Rose. (Id.). Craig Strickland, who had already returned to the truck, urged Rose to get back in the truck lest he be shot. (Id. at ¶ 31(d)). Rose did so, and backed the truck out of the driveway. (Id.).

Rose dialed 911 as he backed out of the driveway. (Id. at ¶ 31(e)). As he drove toward the main highway, Rose told the police dispatcher about the incident. (Id.). When he was about three blocks from the Fahringer residence, the dispatcher told Rose to return to the area near the home and wait for police to arrive. (Id.). Rose parked his vehicle on Fritz Drive in front of the Fahringer home. (Id.). Plaintiff alleges that he never left the truck at any time during the confrontation between his brother, Rose and the Farhingers. (Id. at ¶ 32). Fahringer never made allegations to the police about the plaintiff. (Id.).

Almost immediately after Rose finished his conversation with the 911 dispatcher, Defendant Mertz, a Mahoning Township Police Officer, arrived on the scence. (Id. at ¶ 31(f)). With Mertz were Roger A. Gehring, Matthew Arner and Defendant Frank Buonaiuto, a Franklin Township Police Officer. (Id.). The Defendant Police Officers questioned the plaintiff. (Id. at ¶ 34). Plaintiff refused to cooperate with their questions, and plaintiff alleges that the officers manufactured criminal charges against him because of this refusal. (Id. at ¶ 34). Plaintiff alleges that defendants never issued him his Miranda warnings before questioning him. (Id. at ¶ 35).

After stopping the plaintiff, his brother and Rose, officers searched the three men and their truck. (Id. at ¶ 37). This search found no weapons on the men or in the car. (Id.). Once officers completed the search, they handcuffed the plaintiff and placed him in a patrol car. (Id. ¶ 38). Plaintiff was not given his Miranda rights at this point, nor was he told that he was under arrest. (Id.). Because he was not told he was under arrest and had not committed a crime, plaintiff did not respond to Officer Buonaiuto's request for his name and identification. (Id. at ¶ 39). Instead, "still half-asleep [and] under the influence of alcohol," plaintiff gave Buonaiuto the name of Michael Andrews. (Id. at ¶ 41). When officers discovered the plaintiff did not match the picture of Michael Andrews that came up on the computer screen in their police car, they told plaintiff he would be charged with giving false information to a police officer. (Id. at ¶ 42). He later discovered he had been charged with "False Report, Falsely Incriminate Another and Defiant Trespass." (Id. at ¶ 42). Plaintiff and Rose were arrested. (Id. at ¶ 63). Police issued Craig Strickland a citation and released him. (Id.). They held plaintiff on $1,000 bond and Rose on $3,500 bond. (Id.).

Plaintiff and Rose appeared before a state-court magistrate judge. (Id. at ¶ 65). Rose had an anxiety attack while he and plaintiff appeared before the magistrate judge. (Id. at ¶ 66). Neither the magistrate judge nor Defendant Officer Mertz offered Rose any assistance, though they recognized his distress. (Id. at ¶ 66).

After this appearance, plaintiff and Rose return to the Carbon County Prison. (Id. at ¶ 70). He found himself unable to contact his family and have them arrange for bail. (Id. at ¶ 69). Defendants placed plaintiff in a separate jail cell from Rose. (Id. at ¶ 70). This cell lacked adequate heating, an "inhumane condition" that plaintiff alleges was "a form of torture." (Id. at ¶ 70). While incarcerated at the Carbon County Prison, plaintiff was also "subjected to racial name-calling and other racial harassment." (¶ 71). Plaintiff contacted his relatives and made bail the following Monday morning. (Id. at ¶ 73).

On February 1, 2007, plaintiff entered a guilty plea to the charge of providing false identification to law enforcement officers. (Id. at ¶ 74). Plaintiff contends that he did not willingly enter this plea. (Id.). He was instead forced to pay a fine of $300, $136 in court costs, and $1,000 bail. (Id.).

Plaintiff alleges that he was a victim of false arrest, false imprisonment, and racial profiling. (Id. at ¶ 35). He also contends that his arrest unlawfully restricted his right to travel pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment. (Id. at ¶ 36). In addition, plaintiff alleges that his unlawful arrest was the result of a conspiracy between Defendant Mertz, the other police officers on the scene, Chief Mark Zenko and Assistant District Attorney Jean Engler. (Id.). Moreover, plaintiff insists that the racial discrimination he experienced was a result of a policy or practice followed by the defendant municipalities. (Id. at ¶ 47). The discriminatory treatment he endured from the officers on the scene was a result of the defendant townships' failure to provide training for their officers in how to deal with black people. (Id. at ¶ 50).

On August 22, 2008, plaintiff filed the instant complaint (Doc. 1) and motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis (Doc. 2) in this court. The complaint consists of three counts. Count I, brought pursuant to 42 U.S. §§ 1981, 1982 and 1983 against Defendants Strickland, Mertz, Buonaiuto, Mahoning Township and Franklin Township, alleges that the defendants violated plaintiff's constitutional rights in a number of ways. The count contends that plaintiff was the victim of an unlawful arrest, suffered from an unreasonable search and seizure, suffered cruel and unusual punishment, faced excessive bail, had his free speech rights unlawfully restricted, was denied his liberty without due process of law, suffered from the use of unreasonable force, faced racial discrimination and racial profiling, and had his right to travel unlawfully restricted. Count II, brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1985, alleges a conspiracy to violate plaintiff's constitutional rights between Defendants Mertz, Buonaiuto, Carbon County, Franklin Township, Mahoning Township, and Ralph & Jessica Fahringer. Count III alleges supervisory liability pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1986 against Defendants Mahoning Township, Carbon County, Franklin Township, Zenko, Keiper, Eidem, Blocker, Snyder, Stawnyczy, Green, Smith and Kocher.

On October 9, 2008, though the court had not yet approved service of the complaint, Defendant Carbon County filed a motion to dismiss the instant complaint.

(Doc. 7). The parties then briefed the issue. On November 7, 2008, the court issued an opinion (Doc. 11) granting the plaintiff's motion to proceed in forma pauperis but dismissing plaintiff's claims for false arrest and excessive bail, as well as his claims against certain defendants. The court granted Defendant Carbon County's motion to dismiss with respect to plaintiff's claim for punitive damages and denied it in all other respects. After the court issued this decision, plaintiff served the complaint on the remaining defendants. Defendants Mahoning Township, Mahoning Township Police Department, Audie ...

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