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Lear v. Phoenixville Police Dept.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 5, 2017



          R. Barclay Surrick U.S. District Judge

         Presently before the Court is Defendant Shawn Michinock's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 25), and Defendants Phoenixville Police Department, Borough of Phoenixville, Chief William J. Mossman, Officer Nicholas Heller, and Officer Thomas Hyland's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 26). For the following reasons, Defendants' Motions will be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In this civil rights action, Plaintiff James Lear asserts claims against Defendants under § 1983 and Pennsylvania law for malicious prosecution, selective enforcement, false arrest, unreasonable search and seizure, and violations of his due process rights.

         A. Factual Background[1]

         In the early evening of April 11, 2014, Officer Nicholas Heller, while on his way to work at the Phoenixville Police Department, stopped at a Wawa store in East Vincent Township. (Heller Dep. 19, Phoenixville Mot. Ex. B., ECF No. 26.) While at the store, he observed Plaintiff James Lear who was also in the store. (Id.) Heller observed Plaintiff exit the Wawa, and get into the driver's seat of a white Chevrolet Impala. (Id.) Plaintiff drove the car out of the Wawa parking lot. (Id. at 19-20.)[2] Heller entered his vehicle and followed Plaintiff to a traffic light. (Heller Dep. 20.) Heller was aware of the fact that Plaintiff had a suspended license and he wrote down the time and the license plate number of the car that Plaintiff was driving. (Id.) When Heller reported for duty that evening, he checked the online database and confirmed that Plaintiff had a suspended license. (Id.) He then made a print out of Plaintiff's driver's license information. (Id.) Since Heller is a police officer with the Phoenixville Police Department, and he observed Plaintiff driving in East Vincent Township, he reported the incident to Officer Shawn Michinock of the East Vincent Township Police Department. (Id.)

         After receiving this information, Officer Michinock personally confirmed that Plaintiff's driver's license was suspended by reviewing the PennDOT records. (Michinock Dep. 20, Phoenixville Mot. Ex. D.)[3] Michinock then filed an incident report and wrote up a citation related to this matter. (Michinock Dep. 34.) The citation and incident report were filed with the Magisterial District Court. (Id. at 37.) On the incident report, Michinock listed Plaintiff's address as 800 Kimberton Road, P.O. Box 674, Phoenixville, PA 19460. (Id. at 31.) Michinock got this address from Plaintiff's PennDOT records. (Id.) Plaintiff testified that he notified PennDOT of his change of address from 7 Amy Court to 1050 West Bridge Street either right before or right after Officer Heller saw him driving without a license. (Lear Dep. 73-74.) Plaintiff never received the citation. (Id. at 52.)

         On April 16, 2014, the District Court issued a Certified Summons to Plaintiff for a hearing with respect to the citation. (Traffic Docket 3, Pl.'s Resp. Ex. K., ECF No. 29.) On April 28, 2014, the Summons was returned to the court as undeliverable. (Id.) Plaintiff did not appear for the hearing. (Heller Dep. 43.) The hearing was held before Magisterial District Judge James Deangelo. (Id.) Heller was subpoenaed to testify at the hearing. (Id.) Plaintiff was found guilty at the hearing, and the court issued a bench warrant for Plaintiff. (Id.)

         On May 27, 2014, Phoenixville Police Officer Thomas Hyland arrested Plaintiff pursuant to the bench warrant. (Hyland Dep. 12, Phoenixville Mot. Ex. C.) Hyland had knowledge of the bench warrant because Heller had informed him about the warrant after the hearing. (Id. at 28.) While on duty, Hyland observed Plaintiff standing outside of a house in North Phoenixville. (Id. at 29.) Hyland recognized Plaintiff because he had previously had conversations with Plaintiff, and knew that Plaintiff had previously been arrested and convicted for dealing drugs. (Id. at 13-15.) After verifying the bench warrant, Hyland approached Plaintiff and told him that he was under arrest. (Id. at 32.) Plaintiff acted confused. (Lear Dep. 46-47.) Hyland instructed Plaintiff to get on the ground. (Hyland Dep. 32.) Plaintiff complied with Hyland's instructions. (Id.) Hyland then put Plaintiff in handcuffs and conducted a pat-down of Plaintiff. (Id.) Hyland told Plaintiff that he was being arrested for a traffic violation, on which he had been found guilty. (Id. at 38.) Plaintiff was not aware of such a violation. (Lear Dep. 52.) Before placing Plaintiff in the patrol car, Hyland asked Plaintiff if he was carrying any weapons or anything illegal on his person. (Hyland Dep. 38.) Plaintiff responded “no.” (Lear Dep. 47.)[4] Hyland did not provide any Miranda warnings to Plaintiff. (Hyland. Dep. 37.) Hyland then drove Plaintiff to the Phoenixville police station. (Id. at 32.)

         Once at the police station, Hyland took Plaintiff to the processing area. (Id. at 39.) Hyland documented Plaintiff's property, which included a large amount of cash, specifically $1, 135, and two cell phones. (Id. at 51; Evidence Information, Michinock Mot. Ex. D, ECF No. 25.) Hyland sought approval from his supervisor, Sergeant Sutton, to conduct a strip search of Plaintiff. (Hyland Dep. 42.) Hyland believed that he had probable cause to strip search Plaintiff for the following reasons: (1) Plaintiff had a prior criminal history as a drug dealer; (2) Plaintiff's reaction and his body language when he was asked whether he had any weapons or anything illegal on him was suspicious; (3) Hyland had knowledge from a confidential informant that Plaintiff often hid drugs in his crotch area; (4) Plaintiff was arrested in a high drug and high crime area; and (5) Plaintiff was carrying a very large amount of cash and two cell phones, which based upon experience, is indicative of drug sales. (Id. at 45-51.) Sergeant Sutton gave approval for Officer Hyland and Officer Knapp, another Phoenixville police officer, to conduct a strip search. (Id.)

         Plaintiff was initially required to remove his pants and his socks, and he was left sitting on a bench in his underwear and a white t-shirt. (Video, Phoenixville Mot. Ex. H.) While he was seated on the bench and before he was required to remove his boxer shorts, Plaintiff removed drugs from his crotch area inside of his boxer shorts and handed the drugs to Hyland. (Lear Dep. 55.) After removing the drugs from inside of his boxer shorts, Plaintiff was then forced to pull down his boxer shorts to his ankles, exposing his buttocks and genitalia. (Video.)

         B. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this Court on March 23, 2016. (ECF No. 1.) The Complaint alleges violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 including: malicious prosecution (Count I); false arrest (Count II); selective enforcement (Count V); illegal search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment (Count VI); violation of Plaintiff's due process under the Fourteenth Amendment (Count VII); a claim under Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658 (1978) (Count VIII); and conspiracy to deprive Plaintiff of his constitutional rights (Count XI). Plaintiff also alleges claims under Pennsylvania law for malicious prosecution (Count III) and false arrest (Count IV). On June 15, 2016, Defendants Phoenixville Police Department, Borough of Phoenixville, Chief William J. Mossman, Officer Nicholas Heller, and Officer Thomas Hyland filed an Answer to Plaintiff's Complaint. (ECF No. 9.) On August 22, 2016, Defendant Michinock filed an Answer to Plaintiff's Complaint. (ECF No. 17.) On February 16, 2017, Defendant Michinock filed his Motion for Summary Judgment. (Michinock Mot.) On February 17, 2017, Defendants Phoenixville Police Department, Borough of Phoenixville, Chief William J. Mossman, Officer Nicholas Heller, and Officer Thomas Hyland filed their Motion for Summary Judgment. (Phoenixville Mot.) On March 7, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Response to both Motions. (Pl.'s Resp.) That same day, Plaintiff withdrew his Monell claim. (Pl.'s Resp. Ex. J.)


         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), 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.” A dispute is “genuine” if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Kaucher v. Cty. of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). “[A] factual dispute is material only if it might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law.” Id. The court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Galena v. Leone, 638 F.3d 186, 196 (3d Cir. 2011). However, “unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions” are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment. Schaar v. Lehigh Valley Health Servs., Inc., 732 F.Supp.2d 490, 493 (E.D. Pa. 2010) (citing Williams v. Borough of W. Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 460 (3d Cir. 1989)).

         Where the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may identify an absence of a genuine issue of material fact by showing the court that there is no evidence in the record supporting the nonmoving party's case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); UPMC Health Sys. v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 391 F.3d 497, 502 (3d Cir. 2004). If the moving party carries this initial burden, the nonmoving party must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c) (“A party asserting that a fact . . . is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by . . . citing to particular parts of materials in the record . . . .”); see also Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986) (noting that the nonmoving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts”). “Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial.'” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (citation omitted).


         A. Malicious Prosecution

         Officer Michinock argues that Plaintiff's malicious prosecution claim must fail because Michinock had probable cause to issue the citation, and because he did not issue the citation for any malicious purpose. Plaintiff argues that Michinock lacked an honest or reasonable belief that Plaintiff had in fact been driving on a suspended license. In order for a plaintiff to prevail on a § 1983 claim for malicious prosecution, he must demonstrate that:

(1) the defendants initiated a criminal proceeding;
(2) the criminal proceeding ended in the plaintiff's favor;
(3) the proceeding was initiated without probable cause;
(4) the defendants acted maliciously or for a purpose other than bringing the ...

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