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Laganella v. Wealand

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 9, 2016


          SAPORITO, M.J.


          JOSEPH F. SAPORITO, JR. United States Magistrate Judge

         This is a pro se civil rights action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging malicious prosecution and false imprisonment. The defendant is a Harrisburg City police officer, Cpl. Terry Wealand, who is sued in his official and individual capacities. The complaint alleges that the action arises out of an unlawful search, seizure, and arrest on December 31, 2008. (Doc. 1). The defendant has filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. (Doc. 15). In his motion papers, Wealand contends that Laganella's claims are time-barred and, alternatively, he asserts that Laganella's claims fail as a matter of law. Wealand also contends that he is entitled to qualified immunity.

         We have also received Laganella's request for the appointment of counsel. (Doc. 18). The issues have been briefed and are ripe for disposition. For the reasons set forth below, we will recommend that the motion to dismiss (Doc. 15) be granted and the motion for appointment of counsel (Doc. 18) be deemed moot and denied.

         I. Background[1]

         Laganella brought a similar action in this court against Wealand and others arising out of the same operative facts as alleged in the complaint. See Laganella v. Don's & Son's Towing & Body Shop, et al., Civil Action No. 1:cv-11-1101. That complaint was dismissed upon the defendants' motion, and the case was closed on January 19, 2012.

         In this second action, Laganella alleges that Wealand initiated a traffic stop on December 31, 2008, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. During the stop, Wealand noticed that Laganella's vehicle did not have the required emissions sticker and he learned that Laganella's license was suspended. After issuing the citations for these infractions, Wealand asked Laganella to step out of the car to sign for the citations. At that time, Wealand told Laganella that he was free to leave, but that the car would be towed because of Laganella's suspended license. Wealand advised Laganella that Department policy required him to conduct an inventory of the vehicle's contents. Laganella was permitted to stay and observe the inventory search.

         When he began the inventory search, Wealand observed a jacket in the backseat of the car. He asked Laganella if he wanted the jacket, and Laganella responded that he did. Wealand advised that he had to check it for weapons, and as he squeezed the jacket, he felt a hard object, which Laganella indicated was an eyeglass case. Wealand opened the eyeglass case with Laganella's permission and observed two bags containing marijuana seeds and several plastic bags with what Wealand believed to be cocaine residue. At that point, Wealand placed Laganella under arrest, handcuffed him, and seated him behind the vehicle.

         Wealand then resumed the search and discovered a Savage Stevens 20-gauge shotgun and a Sears-Roebuck .30-06 hunting rifle. Based upon an earlier computer check of Laganella's license, Wealand knew that Laganella was a convicted felon and could not possess weapons. Laganella admitted the hunting rifle was stolen.

         The trial court denied Laganella's motion to suppress evidence which was affirmed by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. However, on December 27, 2013, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed on the basis that Wealand had no legal basis to tow Laganella's vehicle and, as a result, the inventory search was improper and evidence of the weapons found in the trunk should have been suppressed. It is on these facts that Laganella commenced this federal civil action in this court on March 25, 2016, naming Wealand as a defendant individually and in his official capacity as a police officer of the Harrisburg City Police Department.

         As we are to construe pro se litigants' pleadings liberally, Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1992); Higgs v. Attorney Gen., 655 F.3d 333, 339 (3d Cir. 2011), Laganella's complaint, although inartfully drafted, raises claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that Wealand engaged in malicious prosecution and false arrest or imprisonment, in violation of Laganella's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.[2] This matter has been briefed and is ripe for a disposition.

         II. Rule 12(b)(6) Standard

         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorizes a defendant to move to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). “Under Rule 12(b)(6), a motion to dismiss may be granted only if, accepting all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, a court finds the plaintiff's claims lack facial plausibility.” Warren Gen. Hosp. v. Amgen Inc., 643 F.3d 77, 84 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007)). Although the Court must accept the fact allegations in the complaint as true, it is not compelled to accept “unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences, or a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Morrow v. Balaski, 719 F.3d 160, 165 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Baraka v. McGreevey, 481 F.3d 187, 195 (3d Cir. 2007)).

         Under Rule 12(b)(6), the defendant has the burden of showing that no claim has been stated. Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir. 1991); Johnsrud v. Carter, 620 F.2d 29, 32-33 (3d Cir. 1980); Holocheck v. Luzerne Cty. Head Start, Inc., 385 F.Supp.2d 491, 495 (M.D. Pa. 2005). In deciding the motion, the Court may consider the facts alleged on the face of the complaint, as well as ‚Äúdocuments incorporated into the complaint by reference, and ...

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