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Lasko v. Leechburg Police Dep't

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

October 29, 2014

TRAVIS LASKO, Plaintiff,

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For TRAVIS LASKO, Plaintiff: Monte J. Rabner, LEAD ATTORNEY, Pittsburgh, PA.


For THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE OF ARMSTRONG COUNTY, Defendant: Scott G. Dunlop, LEAD ATTORNEY, Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, Pittsburgh, PA.


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Mark R. Hornak, United States District Judge

In this civil rights action filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Plaintiff, Travis Lasko, alleges that the two remaining Defendants, Police Chief Michael Diebold (" Diebold" ) and the Borough of Leechburg (the " Borough" ), 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. At the center of the dispute are two questions: (1) whether the Plaintiff's federal constitutional rights were violated; and (2) if so, whether Diebold and the Borough can be held liable for that violation.[1]

Pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 50, in which the remaining Defendants seek judgment in their favor on the remaining claims. The Court has carefully considered Defendants' Motion; Defendants' Brief in Support, ECF No. 51; Defendants' Concise Statement of Material Facts, ECF No. 52; Plaintiff's Response ECF No. 55; Plaintiff's Concise Statement of Material Facts, ECF No. 56; Plaintiff's Brief in Opposition, ECF No. 57; Defendants' Reply Brief, ECF No. 58; Defendants' Response to Plaintiff's Concise Statement of Material Facts; and all relevant supporting Exhibits. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' Motion is granted.[2]


Because the facts were laid out in detail in the Court's earlier Memorandum Opinion denying in part and granting in part Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, Lasko v. Leechburg Police Dep't, No. 12-1421, 2013 WL 2404145 (W.D. Pa. May 31, 2013), only a partial recitation of the factual background is provided here.

On September 8, 2006, Officer Bennis of the Leechburg Police Department was on patrol and received a call about a domestic disturbance. Officer Bennis responded to the call around 1:00 o'clock in the morning. ECF No. 56-4, at 8. He spoke with Sue Ward, the Plaintiff's then-girlfriend, and Stefan Houser, Sue Ward's son. At that initial meeting, Ward first told Officer Bennis that Plaintiff had threatened Houser with a knife and then, during the same conversation, that Plaintiff had threatened Houser with a gun. ECF No. 56-5, at 6. Initially, Ward told Bennis that she did not want to press charges, but later, at about 6:00 o'clock that morning (roughly five hours later), Ward and Houser came to the police station and said that they had changed their minds. ECF No. 56-4, at 8-9. Officer Bennis had them fill out written statements. In her written statement, Ward related the version of the events in which Plaintiff had threatened Houser with a gun. ECF No. 56-4, at 17. Relying on Ward's written statement (but omitting her previous oral statement about the knife), Bennis wrote the following in his Affidavit of Probable Cause for a Search Warrant:

At this time Lasko went back into the house and came back outside holding a small, white and black hand gun. Lasko then pointed the gun at Houser and said

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he was going to " shoot him." Houser and Ward left and returned to their home at 216 Main St. in Leechburg . . . . Examination of Laskos [sic] criminal history indicates that he is a convicted felon and is not permitted to possess a firearm.

ECF No. 56-1, at 2.

Chief Diebold came in for his shift later that morning, and he and Bennis filed charges against the Plaintiff. ECF No. 56-4, at 6. They obtained an arrest warrant[3] for the Plaintiff and a search warrant for " A small black and white hand gun of unknown caliber." ECF 56-1, at 1. That same morning, Diebold and Bennis went to Plaintiff's house and arrested him. ECF No. 56-4, at 6. Following the arrest, officers from the Department went to the second floor of the house where they spotted a potted marijuana plant in plain view. ECF No. 56-5, at 3. The officers then obtained 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, along with marijuana, cocaine, and drug paraphernalia. ECF No. 56-5, at 3. 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. ECF No. 56-5, at 2.

At Plaintiff's preliminary hearing on December 13, 2006, Ward changed her story about Plaintiff's threats against Houser. ECF 56-4, at 16. This time, Ward said that because it had been dark outside, she and Houser had mistakenly thought the Plaintiff was holding a handgun when he had actually been holding a cell phone. ECF 56-2, at 4. On December 18, 2006, Bennis filed a criminal complaint against Ward for making false reports to law enforcement. ECF No. 56-2. In the affidavit of probable cause against Ward in support of that criminal complaint, Bennis stated that Ward first reported that Plaintiff had a knife, and then reported that Plaintiff had a gun, not a knife. ECF No. 56-2. The affidavit also stated that Ward and her son were initially uncooperative and unwilling to provide a written statement. ECF No. 56-2.

The subsequent procedural history is complex but not directly pertinent here.[4] Ultimately, in relation to a retrial on the criminal charges brought against him, Plaintiff filed a suppression motion and the state trial court held argument on that motion on July 22, 2011. ECF No. 56-4. As this Court's previous opinion explained:

Plaintiff filed a suppression motion and the trial court held argument on the motion on July 22, 2011. [ECF No. 56-5]. On October 27, 2011, the trial court held that, based on the case of Commonwealth v. Antoszyk, [2009 PA Super 232, 985 A.2d 975 (2009), aff'd by an equally divided court, 614 Pa. 539, 38 A.3d 816 (2012)], in which material misstatements rendered a search warrant invalid, there was a lack of independent probable cause for the first search warrant and arrest warrant due to Ward's misstatements regarding the alleged gun. [ECF No. 56-5]. Consequently, the court held that the second search warrant was the fruit of a poisonous

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tree. The trial court also held that the police search incident to Plaintiff's arrest, which led to the discovery of the marijuana on the second floor, was overly broad. Id. Thus, the trial court held that the evidence found pursuant to the second warrant was not discovered by means sufficiently distinguishable to purge that evidence of the primary taint of the first warrant. Id.

Lasko, 2013 WL 2404145, at *3.

Because this § 1983 action has its origins in the Pennsylvania state court's suppression order, a few words about that court's reasoning are in order. The state court relied strictly on Pennsylvania law in determining that the first search warrant was invalid and that the evidence was therefore suppressible. ECF 56-5, at 7. As the trial court explained, " [t]he Pennsylvania Superior Court recently held that under Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, material misstatements made deliberately or knowingly in an affidavit of probable cause will render a search warrant invalid unless there is an independent basis for a finding of probable cause." ECF No. 56-5, at 7 (citing Antoszyk, 2009 PA Super 232, 985 A.2d 975). The trial court relied on Antoszyk as supporting the proposition that, if a confidential informant's material misstatements are the sole basis for a finding of probable cause, then the search warrant is invalid, even if the fact that they were misstatements only comes to light after the warrant has issued. See ECF No. 56-5, at 8-9. Thus, the trial court reasoned that if Ward's misstatements regarding the handgun were removed from the affidavit of probable cause--if the affidavit instead reflected Ward's final story that Plaintiff was merely holding a cell phone--then probable cause disappeared. ECF No. 56-5, at 9. On this basis, the trial court suppressed the evidence. After that, the Armstrong County D.A.'s Office filed an interlocutory appeal of the suppression order. On September 7, 2012, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued an order affirming the October 27, 2011 suppression order.

Plaintiff then brought this § 1983 action against five parties: Officer Bennis, the Leechburg Police Department, the District Attorney's Office of Armstrong County, Police Chief Michael Diebold, and the Borough of Leechburg. In its previous Memorandum Opinion in this case, the Court dismissed the claims against three of the five Defendants (Officer Bennis, the Leechburg Police Department, and the District Attorney's Office of Armstrong County), leaving only Police Chief Michael Diebold and the Borough of Leechburg as Defendants. ECF No. 31. The surviving claims against those two Defendants are for violations of the Plaintiff's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The basis of those claims is that the remaining Defendants failed to train and supervise Officer Bennis, which resulted in the alleged violation of Plaintiff's federal constitutional rights. On August 14, 2014, the Defendants moved for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 50.


Summary judgment is proper " if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). An issue is genuine only if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). " In considering a motion for summary judgment, a court must draw all reasonable inferences from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party." Emerson Radio Corp. v. Orion Sales, Inc., 253 F.3d 159, 162 (3d Cir. 2001). " When there

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is a disagreement about the facts or the proper inferences to be drawn from them, a trial is required to resolve the conflicting versions of the parties." Am. Eagle Outfitters v. Lyle & Scott Ltd., 584 F.3d 575, 581 (3d Cir. 2009) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted). " To defeat a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must raise more than some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, and the court must determine that a fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party on the evidence presented." Doe v. Luzerne Cnty., 660 F.3d 169, 175 (3d Cir. 2011) (internal citations, alterations, and quotation marks omitted).


A. Municipal Liability

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