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Mitchell v. Luckenbill

August 24, 2010

STEVE W. MITCHELL, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS
v.
WILLIAM J. LUCKENBILL, JR., DAVID GUENTHER, DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William W. Caldwell United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM

I. INTRODUCTION

The above-captioned action stems from a hit-and-run accident that was reported to Pennsylvania State Police Troopers William J. Luckenbill, Jr., and David Guenther during early morning hours on October 13, 2002. Immediately following the report, the troopers determined that Steve Mitchell was the owner of the vehicle that allegedly left the scene of the accident, and they went to Mitchell's residence to question him about the incident. Although the parties dispute much of what occurred after the troopers arrived at Mitchell's home, it is undisputed that the troopers entered Mitchell's home without a warrant, and subjected him to a forcible arrest. Mitchell and his wife, Robin Mitchell, and their children, Storm and Bria Hasenauer, brought this action against Troopers Luckenbill and Guenther, alleging that the troopers violated a number of the plaintiffs' state and federal rights as a result of the intrusion into the home and the subsequent arrest of Steve Mitchell. Following a period of discovery, Defendants moved for partial summary judgment on Plaintiffs' claims. In a memorandum and order entered on January 5, 2010, the Court granted Defendants' motion in part, finding that summary judgment should be entered in Defendants' favor on all claims except on Plaintiff's claims regarding the alleged unlawful entry into the home, in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and on Steve Mitchell's and Bria Hasenauer's claims that officers subjected them to excessive force during the course of the home invasion and arrest. (Doc. 125.)

Plaintiffs have now filed two motions in limine, and Defendants have filed one. Plaintiffs have moved for entry of an order precluding Defendants from entering evidence or referring to an internal investigation performed by the Pennsylvania State Police following the incident. (Doc. 138.) Plaintiffs have also moved for entry of an order precluding admission of or references to Steve Mitchell's criminal record, including his prior arrests, on the grounds that his criminal background is irrelevant and, even if relevant, the prejudicial effect of the evidence would substantially outweigh its relevance. (Doc. 140.) For their part, Defendants have moved to preclude the admission of any evidence regarding injuries sustained by either Robin Mitchell or Storm Hasenauer, whose claims have been dismissed. (Doc. 146.)

It appears that the parties have entered into a stipulation that resolves Plaintiff's motion to exclude evidence from the Pennsylvania State Police internal investigation, and we will therefore deny that motion as moot.*fn1 (Doc. 161.) The remaining two motions have been briefed and are ripe for disposition.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Defendants' Motion to Exclude Evidence of Injuries to Robin Mitchell and Storm Hasenauer and Use of Force Against Storm Hasenauer

Anticipating that Plaintiffs will seek to introduce evidence of injuries sustained by Robin Mitchell and Storm Hasenauer on October 13, 2002, and regarding the use of force against Storm Hasenauer during that incident, Defendants seek entry of an order precluding the admission of such evidence on the grounds that it is irrelevant to the remaining claims of Steve Mitchell and Bria Hasenauer. Defendants contend that evidence of injuries sustained by Robin Mitchell and Storm Hasenauer will not assist the jury in reaching a determination as to whether the troopers entered Plaintiffs' home illegally, or whether Defendants used excessive force against either Steve Mitchell or Bria Hasenauer. Defendants make a similar assertion with respect to evidence regarding the alleged use of force against Storm Hasenauer, arguing that this evidence cannot possibly aid the jury in resolving the remaining factual issues in this case. Lastly, Defendants argue that even if the evidence has some relevance to the remaining claims, it should nevertheless be disallowed at trial because it would be unfairly prejudicial and would confuse the jury about the issues actually to be decided.

In response, Plaintiffs argue that Defendants' actions in entering the home, and their conduct while in the home, are relevant to the jury's understanding of the officers' intentions, and regarding their conduct both in entering the house and in effecting Mr. Mitchell's arrest, and to understanding the sequence of events that occurred during the incident.

Rule 401 of the Federal Rules of Evidence defines relevant evidence as "evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." Fed. R. Evid. 401. Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence places limits on the introduction of otherwise relevant evidence, providing that:

Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.

Fed. R. Evid. 403. The Third Circuit has cautioned that "pretrial Rule 403 exclusions should rarely be granted. . . . Excluding evidence as being more prejudicial than probative at the pretrial stage is an extreme measure that is rarely necessary, because no harm is done by admitting it at that stage." In re Paoli R. Yard PCB Litig., 916 F.2d 829, 859 (3d Cir. 1990); see also Spain v. Gallegos, 26 F.3d 439, 453 (3d Cir. 1994) (noting that the Third Circuit's "cautious approach to Rule 403 exclusions at the pretrial stage . . . ."). Moreover, the Third Circuit has characterized Rule 403 as a "trial-oriented rule" such that "[p]recipitous Rule 403 determinations, before the challenging party has had an opportunity to develop the record, are . . . unfair and improper." In re Paoli R. Yard PCB Litig., 916 F.2d at 859. However, "[a] trial court is afforded substantial discretion when striking a Rule 403 balance with respect to proffered evidence, and a trial judge's decision to admit or exclude evidence under [Rule] 403 may not be reversed unless it is arbitrary and irrational." McKenna v. City of Philadelphia, 582 F.3d 447, 461 (3d Cir. 2009).

Upon consideration, we do not find that Defendants have adequately demonstrated that the evidence regarding Robin Mitchell's and Storm Hasenauer's injuries, or the use of force against Storm Hasenauer, is irrelevant or so prejudicial or confusing that it should be withheld from the jury. Although we agree with Defendants that their subjective intention is not dispositive of the Fourth Amendment issues to be tried, see Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 397 (1989) (excessive force determinations must be made "without regard to [officers'] underlying intent or motivation"), we cannot say that evidence regarding the troopers' conduct in the home is limited to showing their subjective intent, and we find that the evidence has potential relevance to the claims remaining in the case, and may benefit the jury in understanding what actually occurred in the Mitchell home during the early morning hours on October 13, 2002. We also do not find that Defendants' bare assertions regarding the potential prejudice of this evidence to be persuasive, and we therefore do ...


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