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Walter Alan Ball, and Carrie Leigh Ball, Husband and Wife v. Township of Silver Spring

June 13, 2011


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


I. Introduction

Plaintiffs, Walter and Carrie Ball, individually, and parents and legal guardians of LMB, brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. This matter relates to a confrontation between law enforcement of Silver Spring Township, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania and plaintiff Walter Ball and his daughter that occurred at Cumberland Valley High School. The defendants, Silver Spring Township, Officer Andrew Bassler, Officer William Burger, and Officer Stephen Grunden, have moved for summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity.

We will examine the motion under the well-established standard. Lawrence v. City of Philadelphia, 527 F.3d 299, 310 (3d. Cir. 2008). After careful review of the briefs and the record, we will grant the motion in part and deny it in part.

II. Background

On August 27, 2008, defendant Ball, a middle-aged, white male, arrived at Cumberland Valley High School to pick up his daughter from cheerleading practice. (doc. 21 ¶¶ 1-3, 9.) While waiting in the parking lot, Mr. Ball picked up a lighter, which happened to resemble a firearm, from the passenger side floorboard and examined it to see if it would light. (doc. 21 ¶ 4-5.) At the same time, a teacher on a nearby sidewalk observed what he believed to be a man waiving a gun around the inside of a parked car. (doc. 21 ¶¶ 6, 9.) The teacher called 911. The 911 center dispatched the defendant police officers to "check the area of [Cumberland Valley High School] for a [white, middle aged] male with a the area of the swimming pool along the curb by the district office" inside a grayish to white car that may be a BMW. (doc. 21 ¶ 9.) Shortly thereafter, LMB entered Mr. Ball's car. (doc. 21 ¶ 12.)*fn1

As Mr. Ball was leaving the parking lot, three police vehicles surrounded his car. (doc. 21 ¶ 14.) After exiting their vehicles, the officers drew their firearms, aimed them at Mr. Ball and LMB, and demanded that they get out of the car with their hands up. (doc. 21 ¶ 15.) After Mr. Ball and LMB exited the car with their hands raised, a police officer allegedly pressed Mr. Ball against the side of the car and handcuff him, while another officer pushed LMB to the ground and handcuffed her. (doc. 21 ¶ 16-18.) Mr. Ball and LMB were separated and placed in police cruisers while the officers searched Mr. Ball's car for weapons. (doc. 21 ¶ 20.) After determining that the alleged firearm was nothing more than a lighter, the police informed Mr. Ball that they "guess we can let you go," and then they removed the handcuffs (doc. 21 ¶ 22-23.)*fn2

III. Discussion

The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from civil liability insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Ray v. Twp. of Warren, 626 F.3d 170, 173 (3d Cir. 2010)(quoting Pearson v. Callahan, 55 U.S. 223, 129 S.Ct. 808, 815 (2009)). Courts conduct a two step analysis for a qualified immunity defense: whether law enforcement's acts violated a constitutional right, and if they did, whether that right was clearly established at the time. Mierzwa v. United States, 282 F.App'x 973, 978 (3d Cir. 2008)(citing Yarris v. County of Del., 465 F.3d 129, 140-41 (3d Cir. 2006)). A constitutional right is "clearly established" when the "contours of the right [are] sufficiently clear that a reasonable officer would understand that what he is doing violates that right." Womack v. Smith, No. 06-CV-2348, 2009 WL 5214966, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Dec. 29, 2009)(Conner, J)(quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640, 107 S.Ct. 3034 (1987). "Although qualified immunity is generally a question of law and should be considered at the earliest possible state, a genuine issue of material fact may preclude" dismissal on qualified immunity. Zimmerman v. Schaeffer, 654 F.Supp.2d 226, 252 (M.D. Pa. 2009)(Rambo, J)(citing Curley v. Klem, 298 F.3d 271, 278 (3d Cir. 2002). The Supreme Court eliminated the rigid two-step test required by Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 121 S.Ct. 2151 (2001) and held that a court may choose which prong of the analysis to examine first. Pearson, 129 S.Ct. at 818.

The constitutional rights at issue in this case are Walter Ball and LMB's rights to be free from unlawful arrest and excessive force under the Fourth Amendment.

A. Unlawful Arrest

A police officer violates a person's right to be free from unlawful arrest when he arrests a person without probable cause. Groman v. Twp. of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 634 (3d Cir. 1995). At trial, a plaintiff must demonstrate that "the police lacked probable cause" in order to prevail on a claim of false arrest. Id. "The proper not whether the person arrested in fact committed the offense but whether the arresting officers had probable cause to believe the person arrested had committed the offense." Dowling v. City of Philadelphia, 855 F.2d 136, 141 (3d Cir. 1988); Groman, 47 F.3d at 634.

The existence of probable cause is an issue of fact. Groman, 47 F.3d at 635 (citing Deary v. Three Un-Named Police Officers, 746 F.2d 185, 191 (3d Cir. 1984)). "Probable cause exists whenever reasonably trustworthy information or circumstances within a police officer's knowledge are sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution to conclude that an offense has been committed by the person being arrested." United States v. Myers, 308 F.3d 251, 255 (3d Cir. 2002)(citations omitted). Our analysis is based upon "the objective facts available to the officers at the time of the arrest." Taylor v. City of Philadelphia, 144 Fed. Appx. 240, 244 (3d Cir. 2005)(citation ommitted). We must examine the totality of the circumstances in determining whether probable cause existed. Taylor, 144 Fed. Appx. at 244.*fn3

Here, law enforcement had probable cause to believe that defendant Walter Ball was in possession of a firearm on school property. Police knew that a 911 call was placed from Cumberland Valley High School by an identified school teacher, indicating that a white, middle age man was in possession of a firearm and was waiving it around on the inside of a car. Furthermore, police knew that children and other individuals were located near the suspect's car. Moreover, officers knew that an individual wearing a cheerleader uniform was observed entering the vehicle and that the car was leaving school grounds. Viewing these facts and all inferences therefrom in favor of the plaintiff, the totality of circumstances demonstrate that police had probable cause to believe that Walter Ball was in possession of a firearm on school property. Given the situation before them, it was equally reasonable for law enforcement to conclude that LMB may have been either a victim of or an accomplice to Mr. Ball. Therefore, defendants Bassler, Burger, and Grunden did not ...

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