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Minor v. Cumberland Township

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

June 27, 2017



          Cathy Bissoon United States District Judge.

         For the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 57) will be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         I. MEMORANDUM

         This civil rights law suit stems from events that occurred on October 19, 2012, when Officers Russell Paul Miller, Jr. (“Officer Miller”) and Garrett Toothman (“Officer Toothman”), (collectively, the “Officer Defendants”), police officers of the Cumberland Township Police Department, entered the home of Plaintiffs Stephanie Renee Minor (“Ms. Minor”) and her three minor children, L.M., B.J., and J.M (“the Minor children”) or (“the Children”).[1] See generally Am. Compl. (Doc. 16). This entry led to Ms. Minor being handcuffed, arrested and charged with various crimes, which ultimately were dismissed. See (Doc. 63-15).

         Officers Miller and Toothman along with Cumberland Township (collectively, “Defendants”) filed their first Motion to Dismiss on March 10, 2014, which the Court granted in part, dismissing various claims without prejudice to Plaintiffs filing an Amended Complaint. Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint bringing various claims against the Officer Defendants in their individual capacities, as well as Cumberland Township (the “Township”). (Doc. 21). Defendants then filed a renewed partial Motion to Dismiss, which the Court again granted in part, dismissing an additional claim. Defendants filed their answers shortly thereafter. (Doc. 22). The parties engaged in discovery and now, pending before the Court, is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 57).


         Many of the facts surrounding the events of October 19, 2012 are disputed; however, the following facts are undisputed: After an argument with Lucas Cubic, an intern with the Cumberland Township Police Department, James Jurczak left the Nemacolin Citizen's Club, a private bar in Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, and drove to his residence at 113 Bliss Avenue, Nemacolin, Pennsylvania (“the Residence”). (Doc. 59) at ¶¶ 1, 6, 7, 8, 28; (Doc. 65) at ¶¶ 1, 6, 7, 8, 28. Officers Miller and Toothman of the Cumberland Township Police Department were in a patrol car watching a stop sign near the Residence when Mr. Jurczak arrived home. (Doc. 59) at ¶ 16; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 16.

         Sometime thereafter, and after a series of disputed events that terminated with Mr. Jurczak entering the Residence, Officer Miller approached the side door of the Residence and banged on the door. (Doc. 59) at ¶ 35; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 35. Ms. Minor answered the door. Officer Miller informed her that he was looking for Mr. Jurczak - though the precise language he used to convey his point is in dispute - and in response Ms. Minor told Officer Miller that Mr. Jurczak was not inside. (Doc. 59) at ¶¶ 41, 43; (Doc. 65) at ¶¶ 41, 43. Officer Miller then said that “if Ms. Minor would not let him in the house, he would come in anyway.” (Doc. 59) at ¶ 45; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 45. Ms. Minor replied by saying “Like hell you are.” (Doc. 59) at ¶ 46; (Doc. 65) at 46. Ms. Minor attempted to close the door to prevent Officer Miller's entry into the home. (Doc. 59) at ¶ 48; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 48. Whether and how much force she used in closing the door is in dispute. (Id.) Officer Miller entered the home and followed Ms. Minor into a first-floor bedroom. (Doc. 59) at ¶¶ 51, 52; (Doc. 65) at ¶¶ 51, 52. Officer Miller placed a handcuff on Ms. Minor's left wrist. (Doc. 59) at ¶ 56; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 56. “Ms. Minor placed her right arm between her legs, ” presumably to prevent him from handcuffing her other hand “and told Officer Miller that ‘he wasn't taking [her] to jail.'” (Doc. 59) at ¶ 57; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 57. The precise series of events leading to Ms. Minor being fully handcuffed and placed under arrest are in dispute, however, that Officer Miller eventually arrested and transported her to Greene County Prison is not. Compare (Doc. 59) at ¶¶ 59-72 with (Doc. 65) at ¶¶ 59-72.

         When Officer Miller approached the side door of the Residence, Officer Toothman went to the rear of the Residence “to make sure that no one fled out the back.” (Doc. 59) at ¶ 34; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 34. At some point thereafter, he entered the Residence. (Doc. 59) at ¶ 77; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 77. After entering the Residence, he went upstairs. (Doc. 59) at ¶ 80; (Doc. 65) at 80. While in the upstairs of the house, Officer Toothman encountered Plaintiff B.J. (Id.) He also went to the basement. (Doc. 59) at ¶ 81; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 81. When he returned to the first floor of the house, Ms. Minor was already handcuffed. (Doc. 59) at ¶ 83; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 83. Officer Toothman “did not have any physical contact with Ms. Minor during the [arrest] struggle.” (Doc. 59) at ¶ 85; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 85.

         Once Ms. Minor was in custody, Officer Toothman contacted Green County Children and Youth Services (“CYS”) regarding the Children. (Doc. 59) at ¶ 87; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 87. Jamie Imhoff, a caseworker for Greene County CYS came to the Residence. (Doc. 59) at ¶ 88; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 88. Ms. Imhoff explained to Ms. Minor that CYS had to implement a safety plan because there were no adults in the home to take care of the Children. (Doc. 59) at ¶ 90; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 90. Plaintiffs L.M. and J.M. stayed with their aunt and subsequently with their father. (Doc. 59) at ¶¶ 93, 95, 96; (Doc. 65) at ¶¶ 93, 95, 96. Plaintiff B.J. stayed with her grandmother. (Doc. 59) at ¶ 94; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 94. The Minor children returned home to the Residence on December 13, 2012. (Doc. 59) at ¶ 100; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 100.

         Officer Miller charged Ms. Minor with: aggravated assault (causing bodily injury to a police officer); endangering the welfare of children; resisting arrest; obstruction of the administration of law; and simple assault. (Doc. 59) at ¶ 101; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 101. Ms. Minor was committed to the Greene County Prison at 5:30 a.m. on October 19, 2012, and released on bail at or before 7:25 p.m. on the same day. (Doc. 59) at ¶ 105[2]; (Doc. 65) at ¶ 105; (Doc. 57-21). A Preliminary Hearing was held before Magistrate Judge Lee Watson on October 29, 2012, and Judge Watson determined there was probable cause to hold over all charges for trial. (Doc. 59) at ¶ 106, 112; (Doc. 65) at ¶¶ 106, 112. Ms. Minor filed a petition for habeas corpus alleging that “Officer Miller had no right to be in her house, [and that] any and all charges arising out of his presence there at that time should be dismissed.” (Doc. 63-15) at 4. Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas President Judge William Nalitz granted the petition and dismissed all charges against Ms. Minor. (Doc. 63-15) at 1. In doing so, President Judge Nalitz found that Officer Miller had:

unlawfully and forcibly entered a private dwelling over the strong protests of the householder, pursued her into her children's bedroom, initiated physical contact with her, and followed her to the floor when she fell, rolled her over, placed her in handcuffs in front of her children and then took her to jail. At least he did not tase her. The charges against Defendant [Stephanie Renee Minor] arose only because of and in reaction to Officer Miller's illegal invasion of her house. (Id.) at 6.


         Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party establishes “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). A dispute is “genuine” only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for the non-moving party, and a fact is “material” only if it might affect the outcome of the action under the governing law. See Sovereign Bank v. BJ's Wholesale Club, Inc., 533 F.3d 162, 172 (3d Cir. 2008) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Merkle v. Upper Dublin Sch. Dist., 211 F.3d 782, 788 (3d Cir. 2000).


         Unlawful Entry

         Defendants argue that there is no genuine issue of material fact as to Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment claim for unlawful entry into Plaintiffs home and that both Officers Miller and Toothman were legally justified in entering the Residence. (Doc. 62) at 6, 11. The Court will address separately each Officer Defendant's alleged justifications for entry into the Residence.

         Officer Miller contends he was in “hot pursuit” of Mr. Jurczak, a fleeing felon, when he entered the Residence, thus justifying his actions as a matter of law. “A warrantless home entry is presumptively unconstitutional, but ‘exigent circumstances' can excuse the warrant requirement.” Kubicki v. Whitemarsh Twp., 270 Fed.Appx. 127, 128 (3d Cir. 2008) (citing Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740, 749-50, (1984)). “Exigent circumstances include, but are not limited to, hot pursuit of a suspected felon, the possibility that evidence may be removed or destroyed, and danger to the lives of officers or others.” United States v. Coles, 437 F.3d 361, 366 (3d Cir. 2006) (emphasis added). Thus, whether Officer Miller was justified in the warrantless entry of the Residence turns on whether he believed he was in hot pursuit of a fleeing felon. If he believed Mr. Jurczak was fleeing a traffic stop for running a stop sign, he would not have been legally justified to follow him into the Residence. However, if he believed Mr. Jurczak was fleeing a DUI traffic stop, for example, he would have.

         There exist substantial discrepancies regarding Officer Miller's version of events. The record evidence, read in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, does not support Officer Miller's position that he had reason to believe Mr. Jurczak was intoxicated at the time of the alleged traffic stop and, therefore, fleeing a DUI stop. Specifically, there is a dispute as to whether Officer Miller had reason to believe Mr. Jurczak was driving while intoxicated. Compare (Doc. 59) at ¶ 23 (Officers Miller and Toothman both testified in depositions for this matter that they discussed the contents of Mr. Cubic's call with Officer Toothman after the call was completed) with (Doc. 63-8) at 13-14 (Officer Miller testified at Ms. Minor's Preliminary Hearing that he and Officer Toothman did not discuss the call between Officer Toothman and Mr. Cubic).

         On the one hand, Officer Miller's police incident report states that “Patrolman G. Toothman received a telephone call from Lucas Cubic in regard to James Jurczak, James Jurczak had been drinking heavily and was causing problems to the point that the Nemacolin Citizens Club requested that he leave. Lucas Cubic informed Patrolman G. Toothman that he was intoxicated.” (Doc. 57-9) at 6.

         However, Officer Miller testified inconsistently at the Preliminary Hearing:

Q: So the hot pursuit that you were in was for a stop sign summary offense? A: I had an individual fleeing a motor vehicle in a traffic stop.
Q: But the traffic stop was a summary offense?
A: It was a summary offense.
Q: You had no other evidence of any other crime; ...

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