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Jason Stasko v. Lebanon County Drug Task Force; Sgt. Brett Hopkins; Det. Ryan

December 17, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Sylvia H. Rambo


In this Section 1983 civil rights action arising out of the alleged seizure of his vehicle, Plaintiff has sued several law enforcement officers and the Lebanon County Drug Task Force ("Defendant Task Force"). Plaintiff alleges that the individual officers, each of whom was a member of Defendant Task Force, unlawfully seized his vehicle in connection with a criminal investigation. Presently before the court is Defendants' motion to dismiss (Doc. 16), wherein Defendants contend that Plaintiff has failed to state a valid claim pursuant to Section 1983. For the reasons that follow, the motion to dismiss will be granted.

I. Background

"As a general matter, a district court ruling on a motion to dismiss may not consider matters extraneous to the pleadings." In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997). However, "in cases where a pro se plaintiff is faced with a motion to dismiss, it is appropriate for the court to consider materials outside of the complaint to the extent they 'are consistent with the allegations in the complaint.'" Bush v. City of Phila., 367 F. Supp. 2d 722, 725-26 (E.D. Pa. 2005) (quoting Donhauser v. Goord, 314 F. Supp. 2d 119, 121 (N.D.N.Y. 2004)). Consistent with the court's responsibility to construe pro se complaints liberally, the court will consider the following public records for the purpose of deciding Defendants' motion to dismiss: (1) the complaint (Doc. 1); (2) the Police Criminal Complaint (No. 10-372) attached as an exhibit to Defendants' motion (Doc. 17-1); and (3) the docket sheet (Docket No. CP-38-CR-115-2011) attached as an exhibit to Defendants' motion (Doc. 17-2). To the extent the court refers to the Central Booking Center Property Log and the Police Request for Removal of Abandoned Vehicle Form, both of which are attached to Defendants' motion (Docs. 17-3 and 17-4, respectively), the court does so solely for the purposes of conveying a complete factual picture and in an attempt to liberally construe and accurately discern the causes of action asserted in the otherwise deficient pro se complaint. Although the inferences deducible from the Central Booking Center Property Log and the Police Request for Removal of Abandoned Vehicle Form are consistent with Plaintiff's factual allegations, any references to those two documents are ultimately unnecessary for the court to reach its holding, and are included herein only to ensure the court's construction will "do substantial justice" to Plaintiff's claims. See Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 234 (3d Cir. 2004) (citations omitted) ("Courts are to construe complaints so 'as to do substantial justice . . . keeping in mind that pro se complaints in particular should be construed liberally"). Accordingly, reference to these documents will not require the court to convert this motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d).

A. Facts*fn1

On November 26, 2010,*fn2 Defendants Detective Adam Saul ("Defendant Saul"), Detective Ryan Mong ("Defendant Mong"), and Sergeant Brett Hopkins ("Defendant Hopkins") (see Doc. 17-1, p. 5 of 5), effectuated a vehicle stop upon a 1990 Ford Bronco, being operated by Plaintiff, Jason Stasko, after a passenger in the vehicle sold cocaine to Defendant Hopkins (See Doc. 1, Compl., at ¶ IV(1)). Following the traffic stop, which occurred around 46 North 9th Street, Lebanon, Pennsylvania (Doc. 17-1, p. 5 of 5), Defendant Mong asked Plaintiff for permission to pull the vehicle off the road to a parking lot. (Doc. 1,¶ IV(2).) Defendant Hopkins stated that he was seizing the vehicle. (Id., ¶ IV(3).) According to Plaintiff, Defendant Hopkins provided the following explanation as to the vehicle's seizure: "[Plaintiff] was captain of the ship so now [Plaintiff's Ford] Bronco and everything in it was now [Defendant Hopkins's] because [Plaintiff] should know what is in [the vehicle]. . . ." (Id.) Presumably, Plaintiff gave permission to Defendant Mong to remove the vehicle from the roadway (see id., ¶ IV (2); see also Doc. 17-4), and the vehicle was apparently moved to the parking lot of the Fulton Bank branch at 555 Willow Street, Lebanon, Pennsylvania (see Doc. 17-4). Following the encounter, Plaintiff was placed under arrest, and subsequently booked, at which time his key ring was taken by the booking agent, as reflected in the property log. (See Doc. 17-3.) From these events, Plaintiff was accused of acting as an accomplice in the sale of drugs to an undercover police officer. (See Doc. 17-2.) Following a negotiated guilty plea, Defendant was sentenced to undergo a period of incarceration of two to four years. (Doc. 17-2, p. 5 of 17.)*fn3

As alleged in the complaint, a friend of Plaintiff had called the Lebanon Police Department to inquire about the location of the vehicle while Plaintiff was incarcerated at the Lebanon County Correctional Facility. (Doc. 1, ¶ 1.) Plaintiff alleges that his friend was informed that the vehicle was "under investigation," and therefore, "no one [could] go near it." (Id.)

On January 5, 2011, the owner of the parking lot filed a Police Request for Removal of Abandoned Vehicle. (Doc. 17-4.) The form lists, inter alia: (1) the vehicle identification number; (2) the vehicle's title number; (3) the vehicle's license plate number; and (4) Plaintiff as the last registered owner of the vehicle and a street address. (Id.) Additionally, the form indicates that "[t]he notice was secured to vehicle (The vehicle has no identifiable registration plate)." (Doc. 17-4.)

In his prayer for relief, Plaintiff requests the court to: (1) inform him "why members of Drug Task force do not have to go to court when they are subpoenaed, and also get no [warrants] issued for them like any other person would"; (2) "return property from inside [the vehicle] and, also the [vehicle] that got towed [and] also [the] cell phone that got seized due to false information that was told to plaintiff[.] Also all charges got dismissed so where is my property?"; and (3) award to him compensatory damages for all lost property. (Doc. 1, ¶ V(1)-(3).)

Based upon a fair reading of Plaintiff's complaint, and construing the pleading in a liberal manner "as to do justice" as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(e), the court interprets Plaintiff's claim to be most likely asserted pursuant to Section 1983 arising from the deprivation of his property in violation of his procedural due process rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment and his right to be free from unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment.

Defendants' motion to dismiss argues that: (1) Plaintiff's complaint should be dismissed as to Defendant Saul for failing to allege how Defendant Saul was involved in any such deprivation; (2) Plaintiff's complaint should be dismissed as to Defendant Task Force because Defendant Task Force is not a proper defendant; and (3) Plaintiff's complaint should be dismissed for failing to plead the deprivation of a federal right, and thus fails to state a cause of action under Section 1983. Alternatively, the motion argues that Plaintiff's claims against Defendants Hopkins, Mong, and Saul should be dismissed on qualified immunity grounds. The arguments raised in the motion will be addressed ad seriatim.

B. Procedural History

Proceeding in this matter pro se, Plaintiff, Jason Stasko, filed his complaint commencing this civil action on June 18, 2012. (Doc. 1.) Pursuant to the court's July 12, 2012 order granting Plaintiff's motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis (Doc. 8), the Clerk of Courts issued a summons to the named Defendants, the receipt of which was acknowledged by Defendants' attorney on August 15, 2012 (Doc. 14). On September 17, 2012, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss (Doc. 16) and brief in support (Doc. 17). Having received no response to the motion from Plaintiff as of October 17, 2012, the court issued an order directing Plaintiff to show cause why Defendants' motion to dismiss should not be deemed unopposed. (Doc. 20.) Plaintiff was directed to respond to this order by October 31, 2012. (Id.) Notwithstanding the court's direction, Plaintiff failed to submit a brief in opposition to Defendants' motion or submit a response to the October 17, 2012 order. On November 2, 2012, the court received a document from Plaintiff, which was sent via United States First Class Mail directly to chambers and titled "Motion For Continuance." (Doc. 23.) The motion, which was opposed by Defendants (Doc. 25), was denied on November 13, 2012. (Doc. 26.) Thus, Defendants' motion is deemed unopposed and, as the period for briefing has concluded, the matter is ripe for disposition.

II. Legal Standard

Defendants' motion challenges Plaintiff's amended complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Rule 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of claims that fail to assert a basis upon which relief can be granted. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). When adjudicating a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the court must view all the allegations and facts in the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and must grant the plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences that can be derived therefrom. Kanter v. Barella, 489 F.3d 170, 177 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 350 (3d Cir. 2005)). However, the court need not accept inferences or conclusory allegations that are unsupported by the facts set forth in the complaint. See Reuben v. U.S. Airways, Inc., Civ. No. 12-2842, 2012 WL 4513236, * 1 (3d Cir. Oct. 3, 2012) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)); Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009) (stating that district courts "must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions"). When addressing a motion to dismiss, the court may only consider the facts alleged in the complaint, any documents attached to the complaint as exhibits, matters of public record, documents integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint, undisputedly authentic documents that a defendant attaches as an exhibit to its motion if plaintiff's claims are based on the documents, and matters about which the court may take judicial notice. Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993).

Ultimately, the court must determine whether the facts alleged are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a "plausible claim for relief." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). The "plausibility standard" requires "more than a sheer possibility" that a defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct. Reuben, Civ. No. 12-2842, 2012 WL 4513236 at * 1 (citing Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). The complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief; it must "show such an entitlement with its facts." Steedley v. McBride, 446 F. App'x 424, 425 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Fowler, 578 F.3d at 211). As the Supreme Court instructed in Iqbal, "where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged -- but it has not 'show[n]' -- 'that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. ...

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