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Reese v. City of Pittsburgh

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 5, 2014

EVELYN MARIE C. REESE, Administratrix of the Estate of Lawrence A. Jones, Jr., Deceased Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF PITTSBURGH, CHIEF OF POLICE, NATHAN NARPER; OFFICER JEFFREY JOHN ABRAHAM; OFFICER JOSEPH P. FABUS, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

CYNTHIA REED EDDY, Magistrate Judge. [1]

I. Introduction

On November 13, 2012, Plaintiff Evelyn Marie C. Reese filed this civil rights action against the above-captioned Defendants on behalf of her son, Lawrence A. Jones, Jr. ("Jones"), as the Administratrix of his estate, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983. (ECF No. 1). The Complaint claims that two Pittsburgh Police Officers, Joseph P. Fabus ("Officer Fabus") and Jeffery John Abraham ("Officer Abraham") unconstitutionally used excessive force on Jones at a traffic stop, which resulted in Jones' death. Additionally, Plaintiff claims that the City of Pittsburgh and the former Chief of Police, Nathan Harper, caused constitutional injury to Jones by having in place a custom, policy, or practice of deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of its citizens.

Following Discovery, Defendants filed the present Joint Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 30). The matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition. (ECF Nos. 31-38). For the reasons that follow, the Motion will be granted in part and denied in part. Defendnat's Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted in favor of the following Defendants: Officer Abraham, the City of Pittsburgh, and Nathan Harper. Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied as to of Officer Fabus.

II. Statement of the Facts

A. Facts Upon Which the Parties Agree

On December 23, 2011, Jones was operating his vehicle and was pulled over by Defendant Officer Fabus and Officer Joseph R. Brown ("Officer Brown")[2] for a noise violation.[3] In his deposition, Officer Brown asserted that an additional basis for the stop was that Jones' vehicle had bald tires, which constitutes a vehicle code violation.[4] Plaintiff does not challenge whether the Officers had probable cause to stop Jones.

At the time of the stop, Officer Fabus and Officer Brown were both in civilian clothing and were operating an unmarked vehicle.[5] They approached Jones' vehicle and spoke with him for a few moments.[6] Officer Brown then ordered Jones to turn his ignition off and to place his keys on the dashboard.[7] Jones complied; however, shortly thereafter he placed his keys in the ignition, started his vehicle, and crashed into a van that was parked in front of him.[8] Jones next reversed his vehicle to separate from the van.[9] As Jones was reversing, Officer Brown, who at the time was standing to the back, right side of Jones' vehicle in the street, relocated his position to the sidewalk.[10]

Jones then placed his vehicle in drive in an attempt to leave the scene and started moving forward in the direction of Officer Fabus, who was standing in the street toward the front, left side of Jones' vehicle.[11] The parties dispute whether the vehicle was driving directly at Officer Fabus. As the vehicle drove forward, Officer Fabus fired several shots into Jones's vehicle.[12] Officer Brown did not discharge his firearm during this incident.[13]

Defendant Officer Abraham was not involved in the shooting and only participated as back-up after Jones had already been shot.[14] After Jones' vehicle came to a stop, Officer Fabus and Officer Abraham approached the vehicle and opened the driver door.[15] When the door was opened, Jones' body slid out of the vehicle and a firearm fell from his person, landing near him in the street.[16] According to Officer Brown, Jones' hand was in his pocket after he had been shot.[17] Jones died forty minutes later as a result of his injuries.[18]

B. Defendants' Version of the Facts

Defendants claim that when Officer Fabus and Officer Brown pulled Jones over, their badges were displayed, they used lights and sirens on their unmarked vehicle to effectuate the stop, and they identified themselves as police officers.[19] Defendants also contend that Jones was not cooperative from the start of the traffic stop, including driving past several empty parking spaces and failing to completely pull over, ultimately parking halfway in traffic.[20] They also contend that he would not remove his left hand from a concealed area in his lap during the entire traffic stop.[21] Defendants assert that Jones was asked to step out of the car, but he instead placed the keys in the ignition and started his vehicle.[22] Defendants further contend that Officer Fabus and Officer Brown repeatedly ordered Jones to show his hands, which they claim he did not do, and Jones then crashed into the van in front of him at a high rate of speed.[23]

When Jones reversed his vehicle after crashing into the van, Defendants state that it was necessary for Officer Brown to relocate to the sidewalk in order to avoid injury.[24] Defendants also claim that when Jones started to move his vehicle forward again, it was aimed at Officer Fabus, who pleaded with Jones to stop.[25] At this point, Defendants assert that Jones raised his left hand and pointed a gun at Officer Fabus, who responded by firing his weapon at Jones.[26] According to Defendants, verbal commands continued after the firing due to Jones' continued attempts to manipulate his vehicle.[27] Following this incident, the City of Pittsburgh conducted an investigation of the incident, which Defendants assert was thorough, and determined that the officers acted appropriately.[28]

C. Plaintiff's Version of the Facts

Plaintiff contends that Jones was immediately cooperative, pulling his vehicle over within approximately four seconds after the officers initiated the stop and placing his keys on the dashboard within one minute of the stop.[29] Pointing to video footage of the incident, Plaintiff also argues that Jones was only trying to leave the scene, and was not driving his vehicle towards either Officer Brown or Officer Fabus in such a way that they were in danger of being hit.[30] Additionally, Plaintiff disputes the claim that Jones was pointing a gun at Officer Fabus because Jones' left hand was in his pocket both before and after he was shot.[31] Plaintiff also asserts ...


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