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Basile v. Township of Smith

November 10, 2010

TERESA BASILE AND ADAM HUBER, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
TOWNSHIP OF SMITH, BOROUGH OF BURGETTSTOWN, MICHAEL NORTH, ECF NOS. 14 AND 17 INDIVIDUALLY AND OFFICIALLY, AND AMBER PRICE, INDIVIDUALLY AND OFFICIALLY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan

OPINION

Currently pending before the Court in this civil rights action are two motions to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) filed by Defendants Township of Smith and Michael North (ECF No. 14), and Defendants Borough of Burgettstown and Amber Price (ECF No. 17). Plaintiffs instituted this lawsuit on March 11, 2010, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of their constitutional rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, and state law claims of malicious prosecution and false arrest. Plaintiffs also assert a Monell claim against the Defendants Township of Smith and Borough of Burgettstown ("Municipal Defendants"). This Court has subject matter jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1343; supplemental jurisdiction exists over Plaintiff's state law claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1367. Venue lies in this district pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b).

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND & PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiffs allege the following facts in their Complaint, which the Court accepts as true for purposes of the motions to dismiss. Plaintiffs, Teresa Basile and her son, Adam Huber, resided in Burgettstown, Washington County, Pennsylvania, at all relevant times. Defendant Township of Smith ("Smith Township") is a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and manages and administers law enforcement in the Township through its agent, the Smith Township Police Department. Defendant Borough of Burgettstown ("Burgettstown") is a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and manages and administers law enforcement in the Borough through its agent, the Burgettstown Police Department. Defendant Michael North ("North") was at all relevant times employed as a police officer with the Smith Township Police Department. Defendant Amber Price ("Price") was at all relevant times employed as a police officer with the Burgettstown Police Department. (Compl. ¶¶ 1-7, ECF No. 1.)

On March 21, 2008,*fn1 at approximately 1:30 a.m., Plaintiffs were awakened by the sounds of their house being broken into. Each came to the door of their second-floor bedrooms to assess the situation. (Compl., ¶¶ 12-13.) Defendants North and Price (collectively "Defendant Officers"), carrying flashlights, ran up the stairs towards them. (Id. at ¶¶ 13-14.) North shouted at Plaintiffs to "[p]ut your hands in the air." Plaintiff Huber asked if the Defendant Officers had a warrant, but got no response. (Id. at ¶¶ 15-17.) Officer North began to search Plaintiff Huber's bedroom, while Officer Price led Plaintiff Basile downstairs to the kitchen. (Id. at ¶¶ 17-18.) Officer Price indicated that the search was for drugs. (Id. at ¶ 18.) Officer North asked Huber if there were any weapons in the house. Huber told North that a registered handgun was located under Plaintiff Basile's bed. (Id. at ¶ 19.)

Plaintiffs were interrogated separately and then handcuffed and taken to the Burgettstown Police Station, allegedly without reading them their Miranda rights or, in the case of Plaintiff Huber, being allowed to properly dress or urinate. (Id. at ¶ 20.) After further interrogation at the station, Plaintiffs were released and subsequently, on March 24, 2008, a criminal complaint was filed charging both Plaintiffs with violating the following laws:

One count of Aiding the Consummation of Crime, under 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5017 §§ A;

One count of Disorderly Conduct, under 18 Pa. Con. Stat. § 5503, graded as a summary offense;

One count of Attempted Manufacture, Delivery, or Possession of Controlled Substance with Intent to Manufacture or Deliver, under 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 901 §§ A;

Three counts of Conspiracy to Manufacture, Deliver, or Possess a Controlled Substance with Intent to Manufacture or Deliver, under 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 903 §§ A2;

One count of Intentionally Possessing a Controlled Substance by a Person not Registered, under 35 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 780-113 §§ A16; Two counts of Manufacture, Delivery, or Possession of Controlled Substance with Intent to Manufacture or Deliver, under 35 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 780-113 §§ A30; and Ten counts of Use or Possession of Drug Paraphernalia, under 35 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 780-113 §§ A32, for a total of nineteen charges.

Id. at ¶¶ 20-21; Police Criminal Compl., CR-67-08 (ECF No. 19-1).*fn2 The affidavit of probable cause submitted in support of the criminal complaint indicates that during the execution of a narcotics search warrant at Plaintiffs' residence,*fn3 the Defendant Officers found drug residue, paraphernalia, and supplies in various locations throughout the residence. (Police Criminal Compl., CR-67-08 (ECF No. 19-1).) In addition, the Defendant Officers also found a properly registered handgun in a bedroom shared by Plaintiff Basile and Harold Huber, which the Defendant Officers were alerted to by Plaintiff Adam Huber when asked if there were any weapons in the house. (Compl., ¶19.) The Affidavit of Probable Cause further stated: "This affiant [sic] Officer Price did take Teresa Basile and Adam Huber into custody [sic] as results of the search warrant that was served. Both individuals did have indicia of living in the residence and knowledge of where seized items were keep [sic]." (Police Criminal Compl., CR-67-08 (ECF No. 19-1).)

According to the Complaint, on April 8, 2008, at a hearing concerning the matter of the Plaintiffs' arrests, the Plaintiffs each pleaded guilty to the summary offense of disorderly conduct and paid a fine, and the remaining eighteen charges were withdrawn.*fn4 (Compl., ¶ 22.) Plaintiffs assert that the only reason they did not contest or appeal the disorderly conduct charges was due to a lack of financial resources to continue legal proceedings. (Id. at ¶ 23.)

On March 11, 2010, the Plaintiffs filed this action against North and Price, in both their official and individual capacities, and against their municipal employers, Smith Township and Burgettstown, respectively, alleging violations of their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count I). (Compl., ¶¶ 24-36.) In addition, Plaintiffs have brought claims for false arrest and malicious prosecution under Pennsylvania common law against North and Price (Count II) in their individual and official capacities. (Compl., ¶¶ 37-45.) Plaintiffs seek monetary damages in excess of $75,000.00, award of attorneys fees and costs from all Defendants, and seek awards of punitive damages against North and Price individually.

Defendants Smith Township and North (collectively the "Smith Twp. Defendants") filed a Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint (ECF No. 14) on May 14, 2010, and Defendants Burgettstown and Price (collectively, the "Burgettstown Defendants") filed a similar motion on May 21, 2010 (ECF No. 17). Plaintiffs have filed responses and briefs in opposition to the motions to dismiss. Thus, these motions are now ripe for disposition.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993). A complaint must be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007) (rejecting the traditional 12(b)(6) standard set forth in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)); Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct.1937, 1949 (May 18, 2009) (citing Twombly, supra). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). The Supreme Court further explained: The plausibility standard is not akin to a "probability requirement," but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully. Where a complaint pleads facts that are "merely consistent with" a defendant's liability, it "stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of "entitlement to relief.'"

Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556-57).

The court of appeals has expounded on this standard in light of its decision in Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224 (3d Cir. 2008) (construing Twombly in a civil rights context), and the Supreme Court's recent decision in Iqbal:

After Iqbal, it is clear that conclusory or "bare-bones" allegations will no longer survive a motion to dismiss: "threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. To prevent dismissal, all civil complaints must now set out "sufficient factual matter" to show that the claim is facially plausible. This then "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. at 1948. The Supreme Court's ruling in Iqbal emphasizes that a plaintiff must show that the allegations of his or her complaints are plausible. See Id. at 1949-50; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, ¶ n. 3.

Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). In light of Iqbal, the Fowler court then set forth a two-prong test to be applied by the district courts in deciding motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim. First, the district court must accept all well-pleaded facts as true and discard any legal conclusions contained in the complaint. Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-11 (citing Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949). Next, the court must consider whether the facts alleged in the Complaint sufficiently demonstrate that the plaintiff has a "plausible claim for relief." Id. at 211 (citing Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must show an entitlement to relief through its facts. Id. (citing Phillips at 234-35). In applying this plausibility standard, the reviewing court makes a context-specific inquiry, drawing on its judicial experience and common sense. Id. (citing Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950).

Thus, the legal standard remains the same in the following respect-when considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), district courts must accept as true the factual allegations in the complaint and its attachments, and must draw all reasonable inferences construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs. U.S. Express Lines, Ltd. v. Higgins, 281 F.3d 383, 388 (3d Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). In so doing, a district court may not consider matters extraneous to the pleadings; however, "'a document integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint may be considered without converting the motion to dismiss into one for summary judgment.'" Id. (quoting In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir.1997) (internal quotations omitted); see also Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., 998 F.2d 1192 (3d Cir.1993) (matters of public record)).

III. ANALYSIS

A. Constitutional Claims Under Section 1983

Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act provides as follows:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States of any other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress. . . . 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Therefore, to state a claim for relief under this provision, Plaintiffs must demonstrate both that the Defendants were acting under color of state law and that a constitutional violation was directly caused by the Defendants' conduct. Piecknick v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 36 F.3d 1250, 1255-56 (3d Cir. 1994).

1. Defendants North and Price

There is no question, and the parties do not dispute, that Defendants North and Price, as police officers employed by political subdivisions of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, were acting under color of state law. Rather, at issue here is whether sufficient facts have been pled to establish plausible constitutional violations under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The constitutional violations alleged by Plaintiffs involve federal false arrest and malicious prosecution claims.

a. Federal False Arrest Claim

A claim for false arrest under Section 1983 originates from the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable seizures.*fn5 Groman v. Twp. of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 636 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing Barna v. City of Perth Amboy, 42 F.3d 809, 820 (3d Cir. 1994) (other citations omitted)); Berg v. County of Allegheny, 219 F.3d 261, 269 (3d Cir. 2000) ("The Fourth Amendment prohibits arrest without probable cause.") (citing Orsatti v. New Jersey State Police, 71 F.3d 480, 482 (3d Cir. 1993)); Kokinda v. Breiner, 557 F.Supp. 2d 581, 592 (M.D.Pa. 2008) (citing Groman, supra; other citation omitted). Thus, to succeed on their false arrest claim under Section 1983, Plaintiffs must show that the arresting officers, Defendants North and Price, lacked probable cause to arrest them. Groman, 47 F.3d at 634; Kokinda, 557 F.Supp. 2d at 592 (citation omitted). ""Probable cause to arrest exists when the facts and circumstances within the arresting officer's knowledge are sufficient in themselves to warrant a reasonable person to believe that an offense has been or is being committed by the person to be arrested.'" Merkle v. Upper Dublin Sch. Dist., 211 F.3d 782, 788 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Orsatti, 71 F.3d at 482).

In determining whether probable cause existed for an arrest, the court applies an objective standard based on "'the facts available to the officers at the moment of arrest.'" Barna, 42 F.3d at 819 (quoting Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 96 (1964); Edwards v. City of Philadelphia, 860 F.2d 568, 571 n. 2 (3d Cir. 1988)). Moreover, "[e]vidence that may prove insufficient to establish guilt at trial may still be sufficient to find the arrest occurred within the bounds of the law." Id. (citing Henry v. United States, 361 U.S. 98, 102 (1959)). Finally, "[p]robable cause need only exist as to any offense that could be charged under the circumstances." Id. (citing Edwards, 860 F.2d at 575-76); Johnson v. Knorr, 477 F.3d 75, 84-85 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Barna and Edwards, supra; also citing Wright v. City of Philadelphia, 409 F.3d 595, 602-04 (3d Cir. 2005)). Where the arrest is made pursuant to a warrant, "a plaintiff may succeed in a § 1983 action for false arrest made pursuant to a warrant if the plaintiff shows, by a preponderance of the evidence: (1) that the police officer "knowingly and deliberately, or with a reckless disregard for the truth, made false statements or omissions that create a falsehood in applying for a warrant;' and (2) that "such statements or omissions are material, or necessary, to the finding of probable cause.'" Wilson v. Russo, 212 F.3d 781, 786-87 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Sherwood v. Mulvihill, 113 F.3d 396, 399 (3d Cir. 1997)) (footnote omitted).

Whether probable cause existed for an arrest is generally a question of fact for the jury. Merkle, 211 F.3d at 788 (citations omitted). Where, however, the court finds that the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, reasonably would not support a contrary factual finding, then the court may conclude that probable cause exists as a matter of law. Id. at 788-89 (citation omitted).

In support of their motions to dismiss, the Burgettstown Defendants and Smith Township Defendants submit that Plaintiffs' false arrest claim fails as a matter of law because their guilty pleas to the disorderly conduct charges carry with them an admission of probable cause for arrest. In addition, the Smith Township Defendants submit that so long as probable cause existed as to any single offense that could have been charged under the circumstances, an arrest is deemed to be supported by probable cause. Accordingly, all of the Defendants maintain that Plaintiffs' guilty pleas to the disorderly conduct charge conclusively established that probable cause existed for their arrests.

In opposing Defendants' motions to dismiss, Plaintiffs have alleged that the Defendant Officers arrested them without probable cause, initiated criminal proceedings against them based on a warrant containing false information, and subsequently, filed false statements in the affidavit of probable cause. (Pls.' Br. in Opp'n to Smith Twp. Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss at 6, ECF No. 20 ("Pls.' Br. Opp'n to Smith Twp."); Pls' Br. in Opp'n to Burgettstown Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss at 7, ECF No. 24 ("Pls.' Br. Opp'n to Burgettstown").) Plaintiffs further submit that based upon the information available to the Defendant Officers, their true target was Harold Huber, the estranged husband of Plaintiff Basile, who resided at the same property where Plaintiffs also resided. According to Plaintiffs, the charges filed against them, including the disorderly conduct charge, had absolutely no factual support, and they only pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct to end ...


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