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Stiegel v. Peters Township

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

February 24, 2014

STEVEN M. STIEGEL, Plaintiff,
v.
PETERS TOWNSHIP and OFFICER MATTHEW RUSSELL COLLINS, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

TERRENCE F. McVERRY, District Judge.

Pending before the Court is MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (ECF No. 32) filed by Defendants Peters Township and Officer Matthew Russell Collins ("Collins") with brief in support (ECF No. 33). Plaintiff Steven M. Stiegel ("Plaintiff" or "Stiegel") filed a response in opposition (ECF No. 38); Defendants filed a reply (ECF No. 40); and Plaintiff filed a surreply (ECF No. 42-1). The summary judgment record has been fully developed with Defendants' concise statement of material facts (ECF No. 34), Plaintiff's response and counterstatement of material facts (ECF No. 39), Defendants' response thereto (ECF No. 41), and the parties' various exhibits (ECF Nos. 35, 39). Accordingly, the motion is ripe for disposition.

I. Background

A. Factual Background

The following background is taken from the Court's independent review of the motion for summary judgment, the filings in support and opposition thereto, and the record as a whole.

1. Collins' Interaction with Stiegel & Majcher

This action arises from events which occurred on the night of January 30, 2012, when Stiegel and his friend, Nolan Majcher, were predator hunting on private property in North Strabane Township. Both Stiegel and Majcher are licensed hunters who may legally possess firearms.

That evening, Sergeant Collins was the shift supervisor for the Peters Township Police Department. Collins has been employed as a Peters Township police officer since 1995. As the shift supervisor that night, Collins was dressed in full police uniform, drove a marked police car and oversaw the three other officers on duty.

Around 11:00 pm, Collins was taking his meal break at his residence located in North Strabane Township when he received a 9-1-1 radio transmission regarding a domestic dispute in Peters Township. Collins directed two patrol officers to that scene and prepared himself to curtail his break early to assist his fellow officers. Reportedly, supervisors respond with patrol officers to domestic dispute dispatches if the call includes a report of physical altercations.

As Collins was traveling on South Spring Valley Road toward Peters Township, he noticed a lone vehicle parked ahead close to a pull-off on North Spring Valley Road in an "unusual" and "suspicious" position: several hundred yards away from any houses around 11:00 pm on a rural stretch of an unlit dead-end road near an area where Collins had encountered criminal activity in the past.[1] Collins further observed a small LED-like light emanating from somewhere near the vehicle, which he again thought was "very suspicious" and "strange." Collins likewise appreciated that vehicles do not commonly park in that area at night-which sits in North Strabane Township but touches the periphery of Peters Township-based on his experience from using North Spring Valley Road daily to patrol Peters Lake Park. Nevertheless, Collins decided to obtain the registration plate for the vehicle, determine whether he could offer assistance, and resolve any problems that required immediate attention even though the "suspicious area" is outside his jurisdiction.[2]

During his approach, Collins noticed an individual seated on the hillside in front of the parked car with a shotgun draped across his lap and the barrel pointed in his general direction. The individual, later identified as Nolan Majcher, was carrying a 12-gauge shotgun and was wearing a camouflage outfit. From his perspective, Collins feared that the then-unidentified individual was planning to commit suicide in the wooded area or preparing to perpetrate a home invasion. Collins pulled up parallel to the parked car, but he did not activate his emergency lights, announce himself as a police officer, or call for back-up. Nonetheless, Majcher suspected that the vehicle and its occupant may be associated with law enforcement due to the distinct spotlight on the vehicle. See Dep. of Nolan Majcher, ECF No. 35-3 at 21 ("Q. Okay. Now at some point - at what point did you realize the vehicle was a police car? A. Just, I don't know if it was because I'm just used to police cars with my dad [an Upper St. Clair police officer], I don't know, but, really, when the spotlight on the side hit me, I'm like, That's a cop.'").

Collins exited his vehicle to assess the situation and commanded Majcher to put down the weapon without identifying himself as a police officer. Majcher instead stood up and took a few steps toward the police vehicle from his location about ten yards away with his shotgun held in a vertical position. Collins, again without identifying himself as a police officer, unholstered his service pistol, pointed it at Majcher, and aggressively repeated his command for Majcher to stop and drop his weapon. Majcher immediately complied and placed his shotgun on the ground.[3]

Now unarmed, Majcher walked towards Collins with his hands raised shoulder-height, during which time he indicated that he was "Nolan Majcher, " asked "is this really necessary, " and explained that he and a friend were legally fox hunting. Collins recognized Majcher as the son of an Upper St. Clair police officer and inquired into the name of the friend; Majcher indicated that the other hunter in the woods was Steven Stiegel, a surname Collins recognized as having permission to hunt on this property.[4] Collins then asked Majcher "what the fuck are you doing" and directed him over to the hood of the police car after demanding that he remain still. When Majcher reached the vehicle, he placed his hands on the hood as instructed and confirmed Collins' identity as a police officer without the obstruction of the vehicle's beams and spotlight that previously impaired his vision. Throughout this encounter, Collins remained in a defensive position behind the front driver-side door and kept his handgun aimed center mass on Majcher.

Once Majcher indicated that Stiegel was still in the woods, Collins scanned the horizon of the field with his personal flashlight and observed a second individual holding a shotgun. With his firearm aimed in Stiegel's direction, Collins called out for him to drop his weapon or else he would be shot. Stiegel immediately complied and began to exit the woods, assuming that a firearm was pointed at him. See Dep. of Stiegel, ECF No. 35-4 at 48-49 ("Q. And you started to walk out of the woods. You had light in your eyes for a period of time, then the light was no longer in your eyes. But you don't have a recollection of the officer pointing his weapon at you at any point? A. Like I said, I assumed there was a gun drawn on me, otherwise I wouldn't have complied with that dropping of my weapon."); see also id. at 64 ("Q. Okay. My only question is, again, there was not any occasion during this incident when factually you saw Sergeant Collins stick his gun in your face is that correct? A. He never stuck a gun in my face."); c.f. Compl. at 16, ΒΆ 126 ("Steven Stiegel has suffered personal injury emanating from stress and anxiety, which should be understandable to anyone who imagines themselves having a gun stuck in their face, with belligerent language, under tense circumstances, and under the color of authority."). As Stiegel approached, Collins observed that both hunters were complying with his orders and were no longer armed. Based on these observations and his need to gather identification, Collins holstered his firearm before Stiegel exited the woods.

Once they were all at the police car, Collins questioned Stiegel as to what the two men were doing, whether they had permission to be on the property and why they did not notify the North Strabane Police Department of their presence. Collins also asked Stiegel to present identification and he complied. Stiegel did not, however, observe Collins' firearm at this point. As part of his questioning, Collins asked Stiegel if he was related to Gary Stiegel. Stiegel responded that Gary was his brother. At this juncture, Collins indicated that he had a more serious call to which he needed to attend and indicated that he would follow-up with the Game Commission at a later time. The entire encounter lasted five to ten minutes, and Collins left without issuing any citation. Throughout his interaction with Stiegel and Majcher, Collins never came into physical contact with either hunter.

While in route to the domestic dispute call, Collins reached out to numerous contacts regarding his encounter with the hunters. First, Collins contacted the dispatcher to request that the Game Commission respond; however, the operator informed him that no officer was working that night. Second, Collins called the supervisor for North Strabane in which he indicated that he encountered two men hunting, that he obtained their basic information, and that he would file a report. Third, Collins called two fellow police officers who were off-duty that evening for purposes of his report to inquire whether they knew, as experienced hunters, whether it was permissible for anyone to fox hunt on a roadway. Fourth, Collins called the Upper St. Clair Police Station in an attempt to brief Majcher's father on the incident, but he was not working at that time. Collins prepared a written report of the incident the following day.

By all accounts, Stiegel and Majcher were allowed to hunt on the subject property. See Dep. of Stiegel, ECF No. 35-4 at 13-15. Rob Kozer, the son of John Kozer, apparently granted Stiegel and his brother permission to be on the land for many years. According to Stiegel, "a handful or two" of other people have permission to hunt on the property.

2. Stiegel's Complaint to Peters Township & Follow-Up

The following day, Stiegel called Peters Township Police Department and spoke with Captain Michael D. Yanchak. Stiegel conveyed his version of events to Yanchak and voiced concerns about his interaction with Collins. Afterward, Stiegel was not convinced that his phone conversation ...


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