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Dianne M. Thompson v. Matthew Petrof

June 11, 2012

DIANNE M. THOMPSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MATTHEW PETROF, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: McLAUGHLIN, Sean J., District J.,

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This civil rights action arises out of events transpiring in the early morning hours of October 31, 2009, when Plaintiff Dianne M. Thompson was stopped for minor traffic violations by Defendant Matthew Petrof, a Pennsylvania State Trooper, and allegedly arrested, without probable cause, for driving under the influence of alcohol. Plaintiff contends that Trooper Petrof violated her constitutional rights in arresting her and subjecting her to a blood draw.

Presently pending before me is the Defendant's motion for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff is the owner of the Corner Bar & Grill located in Bradford, Pennsylvania. At all times relevant to this lawsuit, Plaintiff's brother, Don Cummins, was a member of the Bradford Township Board of Supervisors, and her other brother, Bob Cummins, was a local contractor. On June 6, 2009 and again on August 21, 2009, the local Bradford newspaper published guest commentaries written, respectively, by Don and Bob Cummins. Both commentaries were critical of the practices then being employed by the Pennsylvania State Police operating within the Bradford area. Trooper Petrof was among the Pennsylvania State Police officers stationed in the Kane Barracks and assigned to the Bradford area during this time. It is undisputed that Trooper Petrof was acquainted with the Plaintiff and her brothers, knew that Plaintiff owned the Corner Bar & Grill, and was also aware of the guest commentaries written by the Cummins brothers.

At approximately 1:00 a.m. on the morning of October 31, 2009, Plaintiff was operating her vehicle after having left the Corner Bar & Grill. As she drove home, Plaintiff was observed by Trooper Petrof stopping at a yellow flashing light for a prolonged period of time and tossing a lighted cigarette butt out of her car window. Based on these observations, Trooper Petrof signaled for Plaintiff to pull over, unaware that Plaintiff was the driver of the vehicle.

At the time of this incident, Plaintiff had not consumed any alcoholic beverages throughout the day and her blood alcohol content was zero. There was no alcohol present in her vehicle. Nonetheless, after approaching Plaintiff's vehicle, Trooper Petrof stated that the Plaintiff smelled of alcohol and appeared to have bloodshot and glassy eyes. Plaintiff contends she denied smelling of alcohol or having consumed any alcohol that day. Trooper Petrof then ordered Plaintiff out of the car and directed her to perform several field sobriety tests -- specifically, the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test, the heel-to-toe walk, and the one-legged stand.

Plaintiff was first directed to perform the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test. The parties dispute whether Plaintiff actually attempted to perform this test. Trooper Petrof contends that Plaintiff refused to perform the HGN. Plaintiff insists that she attempted the test but had difficulty with it because Trooper Petrof gave confusing and conflicting directions as to how the test should be performed.

With regard to the second field sobriety test, the heel-to-toe walk, it is admitted that Plaintiff lost her balance during her attempt to perform this test. While Trooper Petrof claims this was a sign of intoxication, Plaintiff contends that her difficulties were the result of attempting to perform the test on an inclined surface.

As for the one-legged stand, there is no dispute that Plaintiff refused to perform this particular test. Plaintiff contends that she refused due to her belief that she would be unable to successfully perform the test in light of the inclined surface she was on. Trooper Petrof denies that the surrounding pavement was sloped and claims that the area was actually flat and well-lighted from the police cruiser's "take-down" lights.

Following these events, Trooper Petrof attempted to perform a preliminary breath test (PBT) on the Plaintiff, but Plaintiff refused because, she claims, she did not trust Trooper Petrof to administer the test accurately and fairly. Instead, she was handcuffed, placed in the back of a police vehicle, and taken to the Bradford Regional Medical Center for a blood draw. Plaintiff claims she agreed to the blood draw only because she believed she would have to choose between the PBT and a blood draw or risk losing her driver's license for a year.

The results of the blood test confirmed that Plaintiff had no alcohol in her bloodstream. Plaintiff was then re-handcuffed, taken back to her vehicle, and released.

Subsequently, Trooper Petrof issued citations against Plaintiff for remaining stationary too long at the yellow flashing light and for littering. The matter eventually proceeded to a summary trial before a district justice, who found Plaintiff not guilty of the summary offenses.

Meanwhile, Robert Cummins, having become aware of his sister's traffic stop and arrest, set out on the evening of October 31, 2009 to determine whether the Defendant was purposefully targeting his family in retaliation for their expressed views that had been critical of the State Police. While traveling in the vicinity of the New City Line Bar & Restaurant in Bradford, Robert Cummins observed the Defendant following him in his police cruiser.

Robert purposefully made turns without using his turning signal and was pulled over by the Defendant. Upon approaching Robert Cummins, Trooper Petrof stated that he could smell an odor of alcohol emanating from Robert and that Robert's eyes were bloodshot and glassy. Plaintiff contends that, in anticipation of such an encounter, Robert had purposefully refrained from consuming any alcohol. Robert was nonetheless subjected to field sobriety tests which, according to Trooper Petrof, Robert failed. However, Robert was not arrested for DUI; instead Trooper Petrof issued only summary traffic citations.

Plaintiff subsequently filed this lawsuit claiming, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983,*fn1 that Trooper Petrof violated her rights under the U.S. Constitution. As the result of pretrial proceedings, four §1983 claims remain in the case.*fn2

First, Plaintiff contends that Trooper Petrof violated her rights under the First Amendment by retaliating against her for the protected speech in which her two brothers engaged. Second, Plaintiff claims her Fourth Amendment rights were violated when she was arrested by Trooper Petrof without probable cause to believe that she had been driving under the influence of alcohol. Third, Plaintiff claims that her Fourth Amendment rights were violated by virtue of her blood draw. Lastly, Plaintiff has raised a Fourth Amendment claim premised upon the allegedly malicious prosecution of the two traffic citations. She seeks a judgment against Trooper Petrof in the amount of one-million dollars.

Defendant Petrof filed his motion for summary judgment on August 31, 2011. The motion has been fully briefed and argued and is ready for disposition.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

In considering a motion for summary judgment, "the court is required to examine the evidence of record in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment, and resolve all reasonable inferences in that party's favor." Wishkin v. Potter, 476 F.3d 180, 184 (3d Cir.2007). The party opposing the motion, however, cannot "rely merely upon bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions" to support its claim. Fireman's Ins. Co. v. DuFresne, 676 F.2d 965, 969 (3d Cir.1982). After examining the evidence of record, a court should grant summary judgment if "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); accord Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322--23 (1986).

A factual dispute is material when it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law" and genuine when "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). "Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no 'genuine issue for trial.'" Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citation omitted).

III. DISCUSSION

Section 1983 does not create substantive rights but instead "provides only remedies for deprivations of rights established elsewhere in the Constitution or federal laws." Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1204 (3d Cir. 1996). To prevail under § 1983, a plaintiff must prove that she suffered the deprivation of a right secured by the United States Constitution or federal law by a person acting under color of state law. Mark v. Borough of Hatboro, 51 F.3d 1137, 1141 (3d Cir.1995). Because it is clear that Trooper Petrof was acting under color of state law at all relevant times, the only disputed element of Plaintiff's various ยง1983 claims is whether she has produced evidence sufficient to ...


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