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Mitchell v. Obrien

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

September 1, 2017



          STENGEL, C.J.

         Eric Scott Mitchell filed a prisoner complaint under the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against six police officers of the Bristol Township Police Department. It is difficult to decipher what claim he is bringing against these officers. Although he indicates that, at the time of filing the complaint, he was being housed at the Bucks County Prison, he also indicates that his claim did not arise while he was confined in a jail, prison, or other correctional facility. After filing an Answer to the Complaint, the officers filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Mr. Mitchell has not filed a response to the defendants' motion.[1] For the following reasons, I will grant the motion in its entirety, and enter judgment on behalf of the defendants and against Mr. Mitchell.

         In his rather sparsely worded complaint, Mr. Mitchell alleges that he was arrested and charged with one count of fleeing or attempting to elude the police, two counts of recklessly endangering another person, and various other traffic violations. He was found "not guilty" on all counts by a "jury of his peers" on May 19, 2016. Judging by the relief Mr. Mitchell seeks, [2] I will construe this complaint as bringing a claim of § 1983 malicious prosecution against the six police officers.


         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), judgment on the pleadings will be granted only if the movant clearly establishes that there are no material issues of fact, and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Sikirica v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 214, 220 (3d Cir. 2005). A party may move for judgment on the pleadings after the pleadings are closed, but early enough not to delay trial. Id. (quoting FED.R.CIV.P. 12(c)). In deciding a motion for judgment on the pleadings, a court considers the pleadings and exhibits attached thereto, matters of public record, and "undisputedly authentic documents attached to the motion for judgment on the pleadings if plaintiff s claims are based on the documents." IcL Rule 12(c) motions are reviewed under the same standard that applies to motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Turbe v. Gov't of Virgin Islands, 938 F.2d 427, 428 (3d Cir. 1991). Accordingly, a motion for judgment on the pleadings will be granted if a plaintiff has not articulated enough facts "to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twomblv, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). It is not enough for a plaintiff to allege mere "labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Id. Plaintiffs must plead "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 663 (2009). The court "may disregard any legal conclusions." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009); see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice).


         Initially, I note that there is no allegation or evidence that four of the six police officer defendants, i.e., Officers Bertram, Frye, Rink, and Reiff, had any personal involvement in the arrest or trial of Mr. Mitchell. A defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs; liability cannot be predicated solely on the operation of respondeat superior: Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207-1208 (3d Cir. 1988) (citing Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 537 n.3 (1981)). Personal involvement can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence. Allegations of participation or actual knowledge and acquiescence, however, must be made with appropriate particularity. IcL Here, the four officers are mentioned in passing on the Bristol Township Police Department's Incident Report Form, as having responded to the motor vehicle incident involving Mr. Mitchell. There is no further mention of these officers in Mr. Mitchell's complaint or any of the documents he attached to the complaint. Accordingly, because they had no personal involvement, I will dismiss these four defendants from this action.

         Next, in the context of Section 1983, malicious prosecution exists when a plaintiff shows that (1) the defendant initiated a criminal proceeding; (2) the criminal proceeding ended in his favor; (3) the defendant initiated the proceeding without probable cause; (4) the defendant acted maliciously or for a purpose other than bringing the plaintiff to justice; and (5) the plaintiff suffered deprivation of liberty consistent with the concept of seizure as a consequence of a legal proceeding. Johnson v. Knorr, 477 F.3d 75, 82 (3d Cir. 2007). To prevail, a plaintiff needs to satisfy each of these elements. Failure to satisfy even one element is fatal to the claim of malicious prosecution. Kossler v. Crisanti, 564 F.3d 181, 186-87 (3d Cir. 2009).

         First, the complaint and its attachments show that probable cause supported the arrest of Mr. Mitchell. As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has made clear, "an arrest based upon probable cause will be justified, regardless of whether the individual arrested was guilty or not." Renk v. City of Pittsburgh, 641 A.2d 289, 294 (Pa. 1930). The court went on to hold:

"Probable cause exists when 'the facts and circumstances which are within the knowledge of the police officer at the time of arrest, and of which he has reasonably trustworthy information, are sufficient to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that the suspect had committed, or is committing, a crime.'" Commonwealth v. Rodriguez, 526 Pa. 268, 273 (1991).

Renk, 641 A.2d at 294; see also Paff v. Kaltenbach, 204 F.3d 425, 433 (3d Cir. 2000).

         The officers' affidavit indicates that on January 15, 2016, at approximately 2:00 p.m., Officers O'Brien and Leighton attempted to stop a white Saturn coupe operated by Mr. Mitchell, the vehicle's owner. After directing him to stop his vehicle and shut the engine off, Mr. Mitchell placed the vehicle into drive and pulled away from the curb onto the roadway. The officers activated their vehicle's emergency lights and siren and began pursuing Mr. Mitchell through the streets of Levittown, Pennsylvania. Mr. Mitchell allegedly violated several traffic ordinances including speeding, crossing over the double lines into oncoming traffic, and failing to use turn signals. The affidavit further alleges that Mr. Mitchell forced several vehicles off the road, ultimately resulting in the police officers terminating their pursuit.

         Magisterial District Judge Joanne V. Kline of Bucks County reviewed the affidavit and found probable cause for the arrest of Mr. Mitchell. A Magisterial District Judge is not held to a proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard, or even a preponderance of the evidence. As the United States Supreme Court held, such "[f]inely-tuned standards ... have no place in the [judge's] decision...[I]t is clear that 'only the probability, and not a prima facie showing, of criminal activity is the standard of probable cause.'" Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 235 (1983). The Court also recognized that "affidavits are normally drafted by non-lawyers in the midst and haste of a criminal investigation, " therefore, "[t]echnical requirements of elaborate specificity ... have no proper place in this area." Id. Accordingly, I find that Judge Kline properly determined that the affidavit was based on the facts and circumstances which were within the defendants' knowledge at the time, and that that information was sufficient to warrant a reasonable man to believe that Mr. Mitchell had committed, or was committing, the crimes for which he was charged.

         Even if Mr. Mitchell attempted to challenge the warrant by asserting that the affidavit was false, he would have had to point to facts in the record to establish by a preponderance of the evidence (1) that the defendant affiants knowingly and deliberately, or with reckless disregard for the truth, made false statements or omissions that create a falsehood in applying for a warrant; and (2) that such statements or omissions are material, or necessary, to the finding of probable cause. Wilson v. Russo, 212 F.3d 781, 786-87 (3d Cir. 2000); Sherwood v. Mulvihill ...

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