United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
NORA BARRY FISCHER, District Judge.
On December 26, 2005 Plaintiff Charles Jackson was arrested and charged with various theft and drug- related offenses. He was subsequently convicted in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas on numerous charges and sentenced to 5 to 10 years of incarceration. After serving approximately four years of his prison term, his drug convictions were vacated and he was released from custody. Plaintiff now brings this civil rights action against the municipalities of Scott Township and Collier Township, their respective police departments, and certain of their police officers based on the Defendants' alleged wrongful acts in connection with his criminal arrest and prosecution.
Presently pending before this Court are several motions to dismiss the complaint. For the reasons that follow, these motions will be granted.
The relevant factual background has been aptly summarized by the Pennsylvania appellate and trial courts as follows:
On December 26, 2005, Jackson, [Jennifer Marie Ballard ("Ballard")], and [Douglas Ray ("Ray")] went into the Walmart in Scott Township. Walmart security guard Ronald Hargenrader ["Hargenrader"] noticed the three in the electronics department acting suspiciously, e.g ., putting high-priced items into a shopping cart without looking at the prices. One of the men then placed a blanket on top of the shopping cart to cover the items. Hargenrader notified his supervisor, Tina Jordan ["Jordan"], that the three suspicious individuals were heading to the check-out clerk at the register where the three were waiting in line. Jordan notified the store manager about the situation and proceeded to the check-out counter.
Ballard attempted to pay for the items using a stolen check, driver's license and social security card belonging to Marlene Gillock ["Gillock"]. The driver's license photograph had been altered so that Gillock's face was burned off. When the assistant store manager realized that Ballard, Ray and Jackson were attempting to purchase the merchandise by check, using altered identification, he would not let the sale proceed. The three then immediately left the store, leaving behind the check, driver's license and social security card.
Hargenrader and Jordan followed the three out of the store and into the parking lot. As Jordan pursued the three actors, she telephoned the Scott Township Police Department from her cell phone, requesting that a patrol officer call her back regarding the incident. Scott Township Police Officer Alan Ballo immediately telephoned Jordan... and was informed that Jordan and Hargenrader were following the actors through the Walmart parking lot. Officer Ballo drove in a marked cruiser toward the Walmart, while talking on the phone with Jordan. En route , Jordan informed Officer Ballo that the actors got into a van with an Ohio license plate. Officer Ballo spotted a van with an Ohio license plate and stopped the van on I-79 near the Carnegie exit. Ballard was in the driver's seat of the van, Ray was in the passenger seat, and Jackson was crouched in the back of the van.
Ballard, Jackson and Ray were removed from the vehicle and taken into custody. Officer Eric Davis of the Collier Township Police Department was one of the officers who responded to a request for back-up and proceeded to the scene of the stopped van on I-79. Officer Davis and the other responding officers began to conduct an inventory search of the van because, consistent with Scott Township Police Department policy, it had to be impounded and transported to the Scott Township Police Department. Officer Davis entered the van from the rear and found Ray's jacket sitting between the two front seats. The jacket pocket contained four small bags of marijuana. Officer Ronald Zygmuntowicz of the Collier Township Police Department, who also responded to the request for back-up, was inside the van attempting to inventory the items located in the rear of the van. Officer Zygmuntowicz found a black bag between the front and back seats which contained small baggies of marijuana and crack cocaine, and a CD case which opened into a digital scale. He then noticed a small baggie of crack cocaine inside the door handle on the front passenger side. When Officer Davis and Officer Zygmuntowicz discovered the drugs, they stopped the inventory search and handed over the contraband to Officer Shawn Arlet of the Scott Township Police Department, who then had the van towed to the Scott Township Police Department for closer inspection.
On December 27, 2005, Officer Paul Abel of the Scott Township Police Department executed a search warrant on the van. The search revealed mink coats, Snow King boots, two pairs of brown work gloves, a gold necklace, and two Walmart receipts. Officer Abel did not find any drug paraphernalia... during the search.
The total weight of the marijuana was 164.88 grams, packaged into smaller bags with each containing approximately 1.25 grams. The street value of the marijuana was $10 per bag with an approximate total value of $1319. The total weight of the crack cocaine was 29.03 grams, divided among 13 baggies. Each bag contained approximately 20 pieces of crack cocaine, valued at $20 per piece. Consequently, the approximate value of the crack cocaine was $4460. Detective Martin Zimmel, based upon his 27 years of experience with the Allegheny County Police Department, testified as an expert in the area of narcotics trafficking and concluded that the drugs had been possessed for purposes of sale. His opinion was based upon the amount and value of the drugs, the packaging, and the digital scale.
Ballard and Ray admitted to going into Walmart with Jackson and filling two shopping carts with items, including a computer. Ballard also admitted to using Ms. Gillock's check, driver's license and social security card to attempt to purchase the items.
Trial Court Opinion, 5/22/09, at 4-8.
On December 26, 2005, a criminal information was filed against Jackson, charging him with [two counts of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, two counts of possession of a controlled substance, and one count each of possession of drug paraphernalia, criminal attempt to commit retail theft, and criminal attempt to commit theft by deception] as well as other offenses. Jackson, Ray, and Ballard were tried as co-defendants in a jury trial. [ ] At the conclusion of the Commonwealth's case, Judge Allen dismissed several charges. The jury convicted Jackson of the above-mentioned remaining offenses. The trial court sentenced Jackson to a prison term of five to ten years on one count of possession with intent to deliver, and to no further penalty on the remaining charges.
See Scott Twp. Def.s' Appendix to Concise Statement of Material Facts, Ex. A [ECF No. 14-1], Precedential and Non-Published Decision in Commonwealth v. Jackson , No. 920 WDA 2008 at 1-4 (Pa.Super. Ct. Jan. 7, 2010) (all alterations in the original except for the final three alterations) (ellipsis in the original) (internal footnote omitted).
Plaintiff subsequently appealed his conviction and sentence to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. In doing so, Plaintiff specifically raised the following issue:
Did the trial court (Judge Borkowski) err in denying Jackson's post-sentence Motions without a hearing since the trial court (Judge Allen) erred in denying Jackson's Motion to suppress the drugs, etc . found in the van since the search was illegal and not associated with an inventory of the vehicle?
Commonwealth v. Jackson, 920 WDA 2008 at 4.
On January 7, 2010, the Superior Court issued a memorandum opinion affirming the judgment of sentence. See Commonwealth v. Jackson, 920 WDA 2008. With regard to Plaintiff's challenge concerning the search of the van, the Superior Court relied on "the well-reasoned trial court Opinion" in concluding that "the trial court did not err in denying Jackson's Motion to suppress." Commonwealth v. Jackson, supra, at 7 (citing Trial Court Opinion, 5/22/09, at 8-10). Plaintiff's Petition for Allowance of Appeal was subsequently denied by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on June 30, 2010. See Scott Twp. Def.s' Appendix to Concise Statement of Material Facts, Ex. C [ECF No. 14-3], Order of Court, Commonwealth v. Jackson , No. 52 WAL 2010 (Pa. June 30, 2010).
Meanwhile, Plaintiff's co-Defendant, Jennifer Ballard, pursued her own appeal from the trial court's judgment of conviction and sentence. Among the issues raised by Ballard on appeal was whether "[t]he trial court erred in not suppressing the drug evidence seized from the warrantless search of the van[.]" Scott Twp. Def.s' Supplement to Appendix, Ex. D [ECF No. 22-1], Non-Precedential and Non-Published Decision in Commonwealth v. Ballard, No. 2028 WDA 2007 at 4 (Pa.Super. Ct. Feb.18, 2010) (first alteration in the original).
In addressing Ballard's appeal, the Superior Court concluded that it "need not determine if the trial court erred in denying [Ballard's] motion to suppress because this issue was already decided by this Court in [her] co-defendant's case." Id . at 5. The Court explained:
In Commonwealth v. Jackson, 920 WDA 2008, unpublished memorandum (Pa.Super. filed January 7, 2010), Jackson argued that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress the drugs and other evidence found in the van "since the search was illegal and not associated with an inventory of the vehicle." Id . at 4 (citing Jackson's brief at 3-4). Concluding that the trial court had properly denied Jackson's motion to suppress, we relied "on the well-reasoned trial court [o]pinion, " which stated that:
Jackson, [Appellant] and Ray were stopped in Jackson's van on I-79 after the three actors had attempted to steal merchandise from Walmart. Scott Township police officers were assisted by Collier Township police officers on I-79 where the van was stopped on the side of the road. Since the three occupants of the van were taken into custody, the van could not be left on the side of I-79 and was to be towed back to the police station. Based upon the Scott Township Police Department's inventory search policy, the officers were required to inventory the items inside the van in order to secure the vehicle and to insure that they account for the items inside the vehicle.
Consequently, the responding officers began to inventory the items inside the van while at the scene. When the officers discovered drugs, they stopped their inventory search and had the van towed to the Scott Township Police Department in order to obtain a search warrant to conduct a search of the van. Additionally, the officers believed it would be safer to tow the vehicle before completing the inventory search, due to heavy traffic at that hour as well as the fact that it was getting dark outside.
Based upon these facts, the suppression court correctly concluded that the officers were conducting an appropriate inventory search of Jackson's van in order to secure the van and its contents before having it towed to the station. Consequently, the drugs and paraphernalia discovered incident to this lawful inventory search were legally seized, and... [the] denial of Jackson's motion to suppress was not error.
Commonwealth v. Ballard, supra, at 5-6 (citing "Jackson's Trial Court Opinion, 5/22/09, at 9-10") (emphasis, alterations, and ellipsis in the original). The Superior Court determined that Ballard's challenge to the search of the van was essentially the same argument that Plaintiff had previously raised on appeal - namely "that the inventory search was illegal." Id . at 6. Having previously rejected the same argument proffered by Plaintiff, the Superior Court concluded that it was bound by the "coordinate jurisdiction rule" to similarly reject Ballard's challenge to the inventory search. Id. at 7 ("[T]he coordinate jurisdiction rule mandates that we not alter the resolution reached in Jackson."). The court went on to consider and reject Ballard's second argument, resulting in an affirmance of her conviction and sentence. Id. at 7-10.
Ballard subsequently filed a Petition for Allowance of Appeal, which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted on January 12, 2011. In a per curiam ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that the Superior Court had erred in its application of the coordinate jurisdiction doctrine, inasmuch as Ballard had not been a party to Plaintiff's appeal and had raised "distinct legal challenges" in her own appeal to the Superior Court. See Allocatur Docket Sheet, Commonwealth v. Ballard, 279 WAL 2010 (Pa.) ( Per Curiam Order dated Jan. 12. 2011).  Accordingly, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court remanded the case to the Superior Court so that the latter could conduct a merits review of Ballard's challenges to the legality of the inventory search of the van. Id.
On remand, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that the trial court had erred in denying Ballard's motion to suppress evidence seized as a result of the officers' warrantless search of the van. In relevant part, the Superior Court wrote:
we are compelled to conclude that the Commonwealth failed to meet its burden of proving the legitimacy of the inventory search in this case. Most notably, the evidence established that the two police officers actually searching inside the van were from the [Collier Township Police Department] which had absolutely no policy regarding inventory searches. While [Scott Township Police Department] police apparently had an unwritten procedure for such searches, they never conveyed it to the CTPD officers. Additionally, neither department possessed any policy for the handling of closed containers, and the evidence proffered at the hearing raised considerable doubts that the search was conducted for inventory purposes only. Accordingly, the totality of this evidence necessitates a determination that the inventory search was unreasonable and, therefore, unconstitutional.
Thus, we conclude that the court erred in denying [Ballard's] motion to suppress and we are required to vacate [Ballard's] judgment of sentence for the crimes of [possession with intent to deliver], possession of a controlled substance, and possession of drug paraphernalia. As [Ballard] does not challenge her remaining convictions, we affirm her judgment of sentence for those offenses.
See Pl.'s Reply to Scott Twp. Def.s' Untimely Resp., Ex. A [ECF No. 20-1], Excerpt from Non-Precedential and Non-Published Decision in Commonwealth v. Ballard , No. 2028 WDA 2007 at 12-13 (Pa.Super. Ct. April 21, 2011) ( per curiam ).
On June 28, 2011, Plaintiff filed a motion for post-conviction collateral relief in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. See Br. Supp. Mot. to Dismiss filed by Defs. Davis, Zygumtowicz and Collier Twp. Police Dept., Ex. 1 [ECF No. 26-1], Docket Sheet in Commonwealth v. Jackson , No. CP-02-CR-4322-2006 (C.C.P. Allegheny Cty.) at p. 13. The court's docket sheet indicates that Plaintiff's convictions for the drug-related offenses were vacated on December 1, 2011 and he was resentenced on that date. Id . at 7-8, 14-15. Although the PCRA court's ruling is not part of the record before this Court, Plaintiff alleges in his complaint that his PCRA motion was granted based upon the Superior Court's ruling in Commonwealth v. Ballard that the officers' search of the van was unconstitutional. ( See Compl. [ECF No. 1] at p. 1 ("all of [Plaintiff's] drug related charges were reversed and vacated due to the fact that [the] Superior Court ruled that what the Defendant Officers called an inventory search' was Constitutionally unreasonable and was carried out for investigative purposes instead of permissible inventory purposes." (citing to Commonwealth v. Ballard, 2028 WDA 2007) (emphasis in the original).) According to the complaint, Plaintiff was released from custody on December 5, 2011. (Compl. p. 1.)
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Based upon the foregoing events, Plaintiff commenced this civil action, naming as Defendants Officer Eric Davis, Officer Ronald Zygumtowicz, Officer Shawn Arlett, Officer Paul Able, the Scott Township Police Department, the Collier Township Police Department, the municipality of Scott Township, and the municipality of Collier Township. Plaintiff's pro se complaint, filed on December 2, 2013, sets forth three causes of action. Count 1 asserts a claim premised upon illegal search and seizure, false arrest, and false imprisonment. (Compl. at p. 2.) Count 2 asserts a claim for malicious prosecution. ( Id .) Count 3 asserts a claim for willful misconduct. ( Id . at p. 3.) Plaintiff avers that he suffered a loss of freedom, continuous humiliation, defamation of his character, and other harms as a result of the Defendants' alleged misconduct. ( Id. at p. 4.) Based on these allegations, Plaintiff seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages, special damages, and "whatever Damages that this Honorable Court renders." ( Id . at p. 3.)
On February 7, 2014, Defendant Collier Township filed its motion to dismiss the complaint (ECF No. 7) and supporting brief (ECF No. 8). Thereafter, this Court entered its standard order on motions practice (ECF No. 9), directing that responses to dispositive motions be filed within twenty-one days. ( Id . at ¶ 2.) By the terms of the Court's order, Plaintiff's response to Collier Township's motion to dismiss was due on or before February 28, 2014.
On March 3, 2014 Plaintiff filed a motion asserting that he had not yet received any response from Collier Township to the complaint and requesting this Court to compel Collier Township to serve Plaintiff with its response. (ECF No. 16.) In light of Plaintiff's representation that he had not received Collier Township's motion to dismiss and brief in support, this Court granted Plaintiff's motion and ordered Collier Township to re-serve those papers upon Plaintiff and file a certificate of said service. (ECF No.17.) Collier Township did so on March 4, 2014. (ECF No. 18.) By April 3, Plaintiff still had not responded to Collier Township's motion to dismiss, so this Court entered an order directing Plaintiff to show cause, on or before April 17, 2014 why his claims against the Township should not be dismissed. (ECF No. 24.)
On April 17, Plaintiff filed his response to the show cause order, claiming that he still had not been served with Collier's Township's motion to dismiss and asking that the Court sanction Collier Township. (ECF No. 27.) Four days later, Collier Township responded to these allegations by stating that it had twice served Plaintiff with copies of its motion at Plaintiff's address of record. ( See Resp. to Pl.'s "Show of Cause" [ECF No. 28] at ¶6.) The Township noted that, based on documents filed by Plaintiff, he was apparently receiving mailings from the Court at that same address and had not explained why he would not be receiving the Township's mailings to that address as well. ( Id . at ¶ 7.)
By order dated April 23, 2014, this Court ordered Collier Township to serve its motion and brief upon Plaintiff once again at his address of record, this time by U.S. Certified Mail, Return Receipt Requested. (ECF No. 29.) The Court allowed Plaintiff thirty (30) days from his receipt of the motion in which to file his response. ( Id .) Collier Township complied with the Court's directive (ECF No. 30) and filed the receipt of service, which shows that Collier Township's motion to dismiss and ...