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Lasko v. Leechburg Police Department

United States District Court, Third Circuit

May 31, 2013

TRAVIS LASKO, Plaintiff,


MARK R. HORNAK, District Judge.

This is a civil rights action filed under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983. Plaintiff, Travis Lasko, alleges that Defendants, Leechburg Police Department (the "Department"), Officer Jarod Bennis ("Bennis"), Police Chief Michael Diebold ("Diebold"), the Borough of Leechburg (the "Borough"), and the District Attorney's Office of Armstrong County (the "D.A.'s Office"), violated his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution when they arrested him, searched his home, and prosecuted him for possession of narcotics and a firearm. Plaintiff was incarcerated for approximately fifteen (15) months before a state court vacated his sentence and suppressed the evidence from his initial case. Plaintiff's Complaint asserts five (5) counts: 1) violation of Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights by all Defendants; 2) violation of Plaintiffs Fourteenth Amendment rights by all Defendants; and 3-5) failure to train, enact and implement policies and procedures, and supervise properly by the Defendants Department, Diebold, and the Borough.

The D.A.'s Office filed a Motion to Dismiss pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6), arguing that Plaintiff failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The Department, Bennis, Diebold, and the Borough filed a separate Motion to Dismiss, arguing that Plaintiff's Complaint is barred by the applicable statute of limitations. [Doc. Nos. 19, 13].

For the reasons set forth below, the Motion to Dismiss filed by the D.A.'s Office will be granted. All claims against the D.A.'s Office shall be dismissed with prejudice. The Motion to Dismiss filed by the Department, Bennis, Diebold, and the Borough will be granted in part and denied in part. All claims against the Department and Bennis shall be dismissed with prejudice. As to the remaining claims against Diebold and the Borough for allegedly violating Plaintiff's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and for failure to train, the Motion to Dismiss will be denied.


On September 8, 2006, Plaintiff's then-girlfriend, Sue Ward, filed a complaint with the Department alleging that Plaintiff threatened her and her son with a gun. Diebold was the Leechburg Chief of Police at the time. Based on this information, Bennis sought and obtained an arrest warrant for Plaintiff and a search warrant for Plaintiff's home. The search warrant application stated that the item to be searched for was "[a] small black and white hand gun of unknown caliber." [Doc. No. 23-3].

Plaintiff was arrested at the front door of his home after he let the police in. [Doc. No. 23-3]. Following the arrest, officers from the Department went to the second floor of the home and spotted a potted marijuana plant. The officers then stopped their search to obtain a second search warrant to search for the presence of drugs in the house. During the second search, the officers found the black and white handgun. Id . Plaintiff was charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession with the intent to manufacturer or deliver a controlled substance, possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, and possession of a firearm. [Doc. No. 23-1].

At Plaintiff's preliminary hearing, Ward retracted her written statement that Plaintiff had threatened her and her son with a gun. She refused to testify against Plaintiff and told Bennis that Plaintiff had been holding a cell phone, not a gun. [Doc. No. 23-3].

On December 18, 2006, Bennis filed a criminal complaint against Ward for making false reports to law enforcement. Id . In the affidavit of probable cause against Ward, Bennis stated that Ward initially did not report the brandishing of any weapon, then reported that Plaintiff had a knife, then reported that Plaintiff had a gun, not a knife. The affidavit also stated that Ward and her son were initially uncooperative and unwilling to provide a written statement. Id.

On February 14, 2007, court-appointed counsel entered an appearance on behalf of Plaintiff. Commonwealth v. Lasko , 14 A.3d 168, 169 (Pa. Super. 2011). Plaintiff initially agreed to enter a guilty plea, but later refused. Id . On April 2, 2007, the trial court granted Plaintiff's counsel's request for a continuance so that counsel could file a motion to suppress. Id . Plaintiff's counsel, however, did not file a motion to suppress and the matter was eventually scheduled by the court for jury selection on July 7, 2008. Id.

On July 7, 2008, Plaintiff told the trial court he was dissatisfied with his court-appointed counsel. Id . Plaintiff claimed that counsel refused to file a motion to suppress and was pressuring him to enter a guilty plea rather than proceeding to trial. Id . Plaintiff repeatedly asked for counsel who would do as he wished and stated that he felt threatened by his attorney and by the prosecutor. Id. at 170, 173. In response, the court-appointed attorney claimed Plaintiff was "difficult" and stated that she believed that Plaintiff might not have been eligible for a public defender because of his employment as a manager at a fast food chain. Id. at 170-71. The trial court did not make any inquiry into Plaintiffs claims that his attorney refused to file a suppression motion, trial counsel's willingness and preparation to proceed to trial, trial counsel's delay in inquiring into Plaintiff's eligibility for services, Plaintiffs ability to pay a new attorney, or whether Plaintiff had an opportunity to obtain new counsel. Id. at 172-73. Rather, the trial court conducted a waiver of counsel colloquy, which the Superior Court of Pennsylvania later determined did not meet the standard for such colloquies as set forth by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania or Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 121(A). Id. at 173.

Plaintiff then litigated his motion to suppress pro se, which was ultimately denied by the court. Id. at 170. Plaintiff also represented himself in his trial. Plaintiff was convicted by a jury for possession of a controlled substance, possession with intent to deliver, possession of a small quantity of marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia. Id.

On August 5, 2008, Plaintiff appeared for sentencing and requested a continuance because his newly-retained counsel had been hospitalized. Id . The trial court denied the request because counsel had not entered an appearance. Plaintiff was then sentenced to an aggregate term of incarceration of fifteen (15) to thirty (30) months. Id.

Plaintiff filed a timely appeal of his conviction and was ordered to file a concise statement of errors complained of. Id . Plaintiffs appellate counsel, however, failed to do so and the appeal was dismissed by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania on February 23, 2009. Id.

On October 13, 2009, Plaintiff, acting pro se, filed a petition pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), seeking restoration of his direct appeal rights. Id . On November 1, 2009, Plaintiff was released on parole. Lasko , 14 A.3d at 170 n.6. On April 7, 2010, the PCRA court granted Plaintiff's petition, reinstating Plaintiff's appeal rights. Lasko , 14 A.3d at 170. Plaintiff then filed a timely appeal. Id . The Superior Court of Pennsylvania held that Plaintiff's ...

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