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Yamba v. Harper

March 9, 2010

SHARIFA A. YAMBA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NATE HARPER, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Bissoon*fn1

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

I. MEMORANDUM

Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 22) will be granted in part and denied in part, as described below.

BACKGROUND

In this Section 1983 action, Plaintiff Sharifa A. Yamba has sued the City of Pittsburgh, its Chief of Police, Nate Harper ("Chief Harper"), and Police Officer Daniel Zeltner ("Officer Zeltner"), based on events that transpired on August 23, 2007. See generally Am. Compl. (Doc. 3). At approximately 1:45 a.m., Officer Zeltner subjected Plaintiff to a traffic stop because a purported remote-access search of a Penn Dot database revealed that Plaintiff's license plate was registered to a different vehicle. See Defs.' Facts (Doc. 25) at ¶ 9; Pl.'s Facts (Doc. 27) at ¶ 9. Plaintiff was arrested for driving a vehicle with an altered document, and she was transported to the County Jail, where she remained until her release at 7:00 a.m. that same day. See Defs.' Facts at ¶ 12; Pl.'s Facts at ¶ 25.

Plaintiff was scheduled for a preliminary hearing on August 28th, but before the hearing, Officer Zeltner telephoned Penn Dot and discovered that Plaintiff's registration was, in fact, valid. See Pl.'s Facts at ¶¶ 28-29; Defs.' Br. (Doc. 24) at un-numbered pg. 4. As a consequence, the criminal charge against Plaintiff was withdrawn. See Pl.'s Facts at ¶ 28.

ANALYSIS

In large part, Plaintiff's claims are premised on the notion that City police officers' unprompted "running" of license plates through the Penn Dot database is unconstitutional.

See generally Pl.'s Opp'n Br. (Doc. 27) at un-numbered pgs. 27-29, 30-32. Federal courts have recognized, however, that law enforcement officers' "running" of license plates does not violate the United States Constitution. See, e.g., U.S. v. Ellison, 462 F.3d 557, 561-63 (6th Cir. 2006) ("a motorist has no reasonable expectation of privacy in the information contained on [her] license plate under the Fourth Amendment") (collecting cases); U.S. v. King, 2007 WL 4233585, *4 (D. Del. Nov. 29, 2007) ("[t]here is no reasonable expectation of privacy in a license plate number . . . displayed in plain view, and it is not illegal for a police officer to use license plate information to conduct a check on the vehicle's ownership and registration") (citations omitted); see also Albert v. Schwartz, 2006 WL 565684, *1 n.3 (3d Cir. Mar. 9, 2006) (summarily affirming district court's conclusion that law enforcement officers' "running [of plaintiff's] license plate number" did not "constitute[] an invasion of privacy . . . under the Constitution") (citation omitted).

Moreover, Officer Zeltner's reliance on Penn Dot's information, only later determined to be erroneous, entitles him to qualified immunity. See Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 507 (1978) (government officials "will not be liable for mere mistakes in judgment, whether the mistake is one of fact or one of law") (emphasis added).*fn2

Somewhat relatedly, Plaintiff has not introduced evidence that Defendants' practice of "running" plates was, or ever has been, targeted at people in a protected class. Cf. generally Pl.'s Opp'n Br. (suggesting that Defendants' policy violates Equal Protection clause); see also discussion infra (rejecting equal protection claims with respect to Plaintiff's specific treatment).

Finally, Plaintiff cannot survive summary judgment regarding her claims against Chief Harper or the City of Pittsburgh, because those entities' purported liability is restricted to their acquiescence in the plate-running practice/policy. Compare Pl.'s Resp. to Defs.' Facts at ¶ 31 (admitting that Chief Harper was not "personally involved" in August 23rd incident) with Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 353 (3d Cir. 2005) (Section 1983 liability "cannot be predicated solely [by] operation of respondeat superior"; government official "must have [had] personal involvement in the alleged wrongdoing") (citation to quoted source omitted); compare also Pl.'s Opp'n Br. at un-numbered pgs. 31-32 (restricting theory of municipal liability to Defendants' practice of running license plates) with discussion supra (concluding that Plaintiff has failed to establish that practice is unconstitutional).

The Court's rulings above notwithstanding, disputes of material fact remain regarding whether Officer Zeltner's traffic stop was supported by a "reasonable suspicion" that Plaintiff violated a traffic law. See generally Am. Compl. at Count ...


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