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Ulitchney v. Ruzicki

December 30, 2009

SHELLY ULITCHNEY, PLAINTIFF
v.
JEFF RUZICKI, DEFENDANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mannion, M.J.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER*fn1

Pending before the court is the defendant's post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law. (Doc. No. 71). Upon review, because the court believes its' prior ruling was in error, the defendant's motion will be granted and the Clerk of Court will be directed to enter judgment in favor of the defendant.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

By way of relevant background, on December 3, 2007, the plaintiff initiated the instant civil rights action alleging Fourth Amendment unlawful entry and seizure claims, as well as a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim, in relation to the arrest of a parole violator by the defendant at the plaintiff's residence on December 11, 2006. (Doc. No. 1).

At the close of discovery, the defendant moved for summary judgment arguing that, pursuant to the Supreme Court's decision in Payton v. New York, 455 U.S. 573 (1980), it was lawful for him to enter the plaintiff's residence to effect an arrest without a warrant, if the subject of the arrest was both residing at and present inside the residence. Defendant Ruzicki further argued that the plaintiff failed to state valid Fourth Amendment unlawful seizure and Fourteenth Amendment due process claims.

In considering the defendant's motion, the court agreed that the defendant was entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiff's Fourth Amendment unlawful seizure and Fourteenth Amendment due process claims. The court disagreed, however, that the defendant was entitled to summary judgment with respect to the plaintiff's Fourth Amendment unlawful entry claim. In ruling on the unlawful entry claim, the court found as follows:

" . . . absent consent or exigent circumstances, entry into a home to conduct a search or make an arrest is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment unless done pursuant to a valid warrant. Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1980). If officials possess an arrest warrant founded on probable cause, they may enter a house in which the suspect lives when there is also reason to believe that the suspect is within the home. Id. However, officials may not enter the residence of a third party in the belief that a fugitive may be inside absent a valid search warrant. Steagald v. United States, 451 U.S. 204, 212 (1981). In Steagald, which was also a §1983 action, the Court assumed police had probable cause to believe that a fugitive was a guest in the home to be searched. Id. at 213. However, the court noted that allowing the police to determine whether probable cause existed to search the third party's home, even pursuant to a valid arrest warrant, did not provide sufficient protection to the third party. Id. at 211. Otherwise, the Court noted that a valid arrest warrant could be used to search the homes of any of the suspect's friends or acquaintances. Id. at 215. Given the findings in Payton and Steagald, entry into a residence without a search warrant is per se impermissible unless the search is consensual, under exigent circumstances, or into a suspect's own home pursuant to a valid arrest warrant and with reason to believe that the suspect is inside. Payton, 445 U.S. at 602.

Here, the defendant argues that he possessed a valid arrest warrant for Mr. Robinson and entered the home in question under the reasonable belief that Mr. Robinson was a resident of the home and that he was then present within the home. As such, the defendant argues that the entry of the home met the requirements of Payton and Steagald.

Upon review of the record, regardless of the reasonableness of the defendant's belief as to whether Mr. Robinson resided in the plaintiff's home and whether he was present there at the time of the entry, there is no evidence in the record that defendant Ruzicki possessed a valid arrest warrant at the time of the entry. The defendant has stated that he was acting pursuant to an Order to Detain, which he contends constituted a valid warrant pursuant to 37 Pa.Code §71.1(d). However, his testimony establishes that he did not physically possess a warrant by way of either a completed Order to Detain or otherwise at the time he approached the plaintiff's residence. In fact, as previously set forth, the defendant testified that he did not recall filling out an Order to Detain Mr. Robinson at all. Furthermore, no such order is contained within the record.

The defendant relies, in part, on this court's decision in Bratton v. Toboz, 764 F.Supp. 965 (M.D.Pa. 1991) in support of his claim. In Bratton, the court concluded that, if the individual for whom a valid arrest warrant exists, is a co-resident of the third party whose home is searched, Payton renders the warrantless search permissible. In that particular case, the court found that because the officers reasonably believed that the suspect was a co-resident at the third party's home, the plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights were not violated by the warrantless search even though the suspect was not, in fact, a resident. Id. at 972. That case is distinguishable, however, by the fact that the officers in Bratton were actually armed with an arrest warrant at the time of the entry. Other cases relied upon by the defendant are distinguishable on this basis as well. SeeUnited States v. Eggleston, 243 Fed.Appx. 715 (3d Cir. 2007); United States v. Agnew, 407 F.3d 193 (3d Cir. 2005); United States v. Veal, 453 F.3d 164 (3d Cir. 2006); DePaolo v. Brunswick Hills Police Dept., 2007 WL 2071947 (N.D.Ohio Jul. 17, 2007); United States v. Sabur, 2005 WL 2340701 (E.D.Pa. Sep. 22, 2005).

The defendant further argues that, in any event, he did not need an arrest warrant for Mr. Robinson, because a specific statute, 61 P.S. §331.27, granted him the lawful authority to arrest Mr. Robinson without a warrant for failing to report after being released from prison on parole. However, while §331.27 addresses the authority of a parole officer to arrest a parole violator without a warrant, it does not address the issue of an officer's authority to enter the home of a third party without a search warrant in order to effectuate the arrest.

Given the above, entry into the plaintiff's home without a search warrant would be justified only if the entry were consensual or if there were exigent circumstances to justify the entry. There appears to be no dispute as to the fact that the entry was not pursuant to exigent circumstances. The parties do dispute, however, whether the entry was consensual. To this extent, the plaintiff claims that she heard an individual threaten to kick in her door. She claims that she subsequently attempted to use her foot and shoulder to prevent the defendant from opening the door, but that defendant Ruzicki pushed his weight against the door and entered her home forcibly. The defendant, on the other hand, contends that the plaintiff eventually opened the door consensually. He further claims that the plaintiff did not try to hold the door closed and that the officers never forced their way into the plaintiff's home. Therefore, there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the officers' entry into the plaintiff's home was consensual and consequently permissible pursuant to the Fourth Amendment." (Doc. No. 35)(footnotes omitted).

Given the court's ruling on the defendant's motion for summary judgment, the case proceeded to a jury trial on February 23, 2009, on the issue of whether defendant Ruzicki's entry into the plaintiff's home was consensual. At the close of the plaintiff's case, the defendant made his initial Rule 50 motion for the reasons previously stated in his motion for summary judgment. In the alternative, defendant Ruzicki argued that he was entitled to qualified immunity because the law governing these circumstances was not well-established and that a Pennsylvania statute authorized the warrantless arrest of parole absconders. The court denied the defendant's oral motion on both grounds. In doing so, the court agreed that an officer with an arrest warrant would have the right to go into the parolee's own house without a search warrant, but questioned whether they would have the right to go into a third-party's house. The court found that it would not. The court went on to find that " . . . assuming that the parole violator had in fact resided at Ms. Ulitchney's house, and that was in fact his residence, that may have well changed the circumstances had there been a warrant." Because the record indicated that the defendant had no warrant, the court found that he was not authorized to enter a third-party's residence to effect an arrest.

As a result of the court's ruling, the jury trial proceeded. On the following day, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff finding that defendant Ruzicki entered the plaintiff's home without her ...


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