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Sean P. O'neill v. Glenn Kerrigan

February 22, 2013


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Juan R. Sanchez, J.


During his senior year at Pius X High School in Bangor, Pennsylvania, Plaintiff Sean P. O'Neill was arrested at school in the middle of the school day pursuant to a juvenile arrest warrant charging him with possession and delivery of marijuana off school grounds. The charges against O'Neill were ultimately resolved in a consent decree which established a six-month period of probation. As a result, O'Neill was never adjudicated delinquent. O'Neill brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the arresting officers, Borough of Bangor Police Chief Michael Hunsicker and Police Officer Glenn Kerrigan, alleging Defendants orchestrated his arrest to make an example of him within the school, in complete derogation of the privacy protections to which he was entitled as a juvenile, and in violation of his Fourth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. O'Neill also brings related state law claims against Defendants.

Defendants ask this Court to dismiss O'Neill's Amended Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Although this Court is deeply troubled by the conduct of the officers in this case, the constitutional rights they are alleged to have violated were not clearly established at the time of O'Neill's arrest. Defendants' motion will therefore be granted as to O'Neill's § 1983 claims on the basis of qualified immunity. O'Neill's state law claims will be dismissed without prejudice pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3).


In February 2010, O'Neill was a senior at Pius X High School, where he was a good student and a member of the varsity basketball team with plans to play basketball in college. On February 9, 2010, at approximately 12:30 p.m., Kerrigan and Hunsicker appeared in uniform at Pius X with a juvenile arrest warrant charging O'Neill with possession and delivery of marijuana based on conduct that had occurred off school grounds a month earlier, on January 8, 2010. After conferring with the school principal, Kerrigan and Hunsicker, accompanied by the principal, went to O'Neill's classroom and physically escorted him to the principal's office, where they informed him of the charges against him and advised him that he had Miranda rights, which would be explained when his mother arrived. Kerrigan and Hunsicker also provided a copy of the charges against O'Neill to the principal-allegedly in violation of Pennsylvania law-without advising O'Neill of his right not to have the charges so provided. While in the principal's office, Hunsicker conducted a pat-down search of O'Neill, after which O'Neill was handcuffed from behind, "paraded out of the Principal's office, along the corridors of the school, past various students and then taken out of the front door in view of virtually all classrooms to be placed in a Borough of Bangor police patrol car at which time he was then transported to the Bangor Police Station." Am. Compl. ¶ 11.

Once at the police station, where he was met by his mother, O'Neill was advised of his Miranda rights, and Hunsicker contacted the Northampton County Juvenile Probation Office. Following a discussion between O'Neill's mother and Juvenile Probation Officer Shelly Bundro, Bundro advised Hunsicker to release O'Neill into his mother's custody and to forward juvenile referral forms to her later in the week.*fn2 O'Neill and his mother left the police station around 2:30 p.m.

The charges against O'Neill were ultimately resolved by way of a consent decree entered by the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas on April 12, 2010, which established a six-month period of probation. As a result of the consent decree, O'Neill was never adjudicated delinquent under Pennsylvania law, and school officials thus need never have been notified of the underlying conduct had Defendants not chosen to arrest O'Neill on school grounds.

Following his arrest, O'Neill was suspended from school and prohibited from playing on the varsity basketball team, jeopardizing his ability to graduate on time as well as his college career. Because of the suspension, O'Neill changed schools mid-semester, which required him to complete certain additional studies in order to graduate on time. O'Neill graduated from Pleasant Valley High School on-schedule in June 2010, and thereafter matriculated to Wentworth College in the fall of 2010, where he was a member of the College's basketball team. O'Neill has since transferred to Temple University.

O'Neill alleges his arrest on school property for a non-school-related offense was an abuse of governmental authority, which was done for the sole purpose of making an example of him, in complete derogation of Pennsylvania statutes and rules protecting the privacy of juveniles. He brings § 1983 claims for violations of his Fourth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights (Counts I and II), and state law claims for violation of his right to privacy under the Pennsylvania Constitution, assault and battery, false imprisonment, and abuse of process (Counts III through VI).


To survive a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible when the facts pleaded "allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. In evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a district court first must separate the legal and factual elements of the plaintiff's claims. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). The court "must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions." Id. at 210-11. The court must then "determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a 'plausible claim for relief.'" Id. at 211 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679).

Defendants argue O'Neill's § 1983 claims should be dismissed because the conduct alleged does not amount to a violation of O'Neill's constitutional rights as a matter of law and, even if there was a constitutional violation, they are entitled to qualified immunity because the rights violated were not clearly established at the time of O'Neill's arrest. The doctrine of qualified immunity shields government officials "from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). Qualified immunity is "an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability" and, as such, should be resolved "at the earliest possible stage in litigation." Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 200-01 (2001) (quotations omitted). The qualified immunity analysis has two components: (1) whether the facts, viewed in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, show the official's conduct violated a federal right; and (2) whether the right infringed was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. Id. at 201. A right is clearly established for qualified immunity purposes if "it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted." Id. at 202. A district court may "exercise [its] sound discretion in deciding which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity analysis should be addressed first in light of the circumstances in the particular case at hand." Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009).

O'Neill's federal claims challenge the manner in which his arrest was conducted. In Count I, O'Neill alleges his arrest violated his right to be free from unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment and his right to privacy under the Ninth Amendment. In Count II, he alleges his arrest violated his procedural and substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Both Counts, however, are premised on the same alleged underlying violations of state law. O'Neill argues by arresting him on school grounds in view of the school community, and by disclosing the charges against him to the school principal, Defendants violated the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act and Rules of Juvenile Court Procedure, both of which protect the confidentiality of juvenile law enforcement and court records. O'Neill cites 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6308, which prohibits public disclosure of the contents of law enforcement records concerning a child, subject to certain exceptions not applicable here.*fn3 He also cites Juvenile Court Rule 163 and 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6341(b.1), both of which authorize disclosure of information regarding delinquent acts by a juvenile to school officials only when the juvenile has been adjudicated delinquent.*fn4 Finally, O'Neill invokes Juvenile Court Rule 101(C), which specifies the Juvenile Rules are to be construed "to effectuate the purposes stated in the Juvenile Act," including the protection of juveniles' privacy rights.*fn5

The Court assumes, for purposes of the instant motion, that Defendants' disclosure of the charges against O'Neill to the school principal violated at least § 6308. At the time of his arrest, O'Neill had never previously been adjudicated delinquent, and the charges against him had not been referred for criminal prosecution and were not the subject of a court order authorizing disclosure. Therefore, § 6308 prohibited disclosure of law enforcement records concerning O'Neill beyond those persons specifically identified in the statute, a group which does not include school officials. See also Pa. R. Juv. Ct. P. 210 cmt. ("When issuing an arrest warrant, a magisterial district judge is included in the definition of court pursuant to Rule 120, and as such, the magisterial district judge is to maintain the confidentiality of records as required by Rule 160."). Defendants argue common sense dictates that police officers must be able to provide school officials with some "basic information as to the circumstances of the incident which led to the arrest" so as to be able to ...

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