United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
Christopher Beltz, a prisoner incarcerated at the
Philadelphia House of Correction, filed a motion proceed
in forma pauperis and a pro se complaint raising
claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, based on criminal
proceedings that led to his conviction. He claims to have
been the victim of prosecutorial misconduct. For the
following reasons, the Court will grant Mr. Beltz leave to
proceed in forma pauperis and dismiss his complaint.
gist of Mr. Beltz's complaint is that prosecutors
committed misconduct in connection with two criminal cases
filed against him, primarily by unfairly pressuring him to
plead guilty and by withholding exculpatory evidence. In
April of 2015, Mr. Beltz and seven co-defendants were charged
with burglary and related crimes in the Philadelphia
Municipal Court. See Commonwealth v. Beltz, Docket
No. MC-51-CR-0011156-2015. Mr. Beltz alleges that the charges
were dismissed as to five of his co-defendants in September
of 2015. He also suggests that the charges against him were
dismissed on that date, but the docket for his case indicates
only that the court granted a continuance. In any event, the
case was transferred to the Philadelphia Court of Common
Pleas where it proceeded. See Commonwealth v. Beltz,
Docket No. CP-51-CR-0010543-2015.
Beltz alleges that the prosecutors were overzealous and acted
in bad faith to deny him the right to a fair trial by
delaying the case to pressure him to plead guilty. He also
alleges that the judge presiding over his case, the Honorable
Ann M. Coyle, pressured him to take a plea agreement and
conspired with prosecutors to secure his conviction by guilty
plea. Mr. Beltz ultimately pled guilty to conspiracy. See
Commonwealth v. Beltz, Docket No. CP-51-CR-0010543-2015.
Beltz also alleges that he was pressured to plead guilty in
an unrelated case in which he was charged with driving under
the influence. Mr. Beltz did not plead guilty, but the judge
presiding over Mr. Beltz's case denied his motion to
suppress and found him guilty. See Commonwealth v.
Beltz, Docket No. CP-51-CR-0000405-2017. Mr. Beltz
alleges that the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence
that would have led to his acquittal.
Beltz filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
1983, against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Governor Tom
Wolf, the City of Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney, the
Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, and Judge Ann M.
Coyle. He also appears to be raising claims against the
former Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter, Interim District
Attorney Kelly Hodges, Assistant District Attorney Leonard
Champaign, and several other assistant district attorneys who
prosecuted his cases or his co-defendants' cases,
although he did not name those individuals in the caption of
the complaint as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
10. Mr. Beltz primarily seeks damages, declaratory relief,
and an order overturning his convictions.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Court grants Mr. Beltz leave to proceed in forma
pauperis because it appears that he is not capable of
paying the fees to commence this civil action. Accordingly,
28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(i) & (ii) require the
Court to dismiss the complaint if it is frivolous or fails to
state a claim. A complaint is frivolous if it "lacks an
arguable basis either in law or in fact, " Neitzke
v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989), and is legally
baseless if it is "based on an indisputably meritless
legal theory." Deutsch v. United States, 67
F.3d 1080, 1085 (3d Cir. 1995).
survive dismissal for failure to state a claim, the complaint
must contain "sufficient factual matter, accepted as
true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its
face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678
(2009) (quotations omitted). "[M]ere conclusory
statements do not suffice." Id. The Court may
also consider matters of public record. Buck v. Hampton
Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006).
Additionally, the Court may dismiss claims based on an
affirmative defense if the affirmative defense is obvious
from the face of the complaint. See Fogle v.
Pierson, 435 F.3d 1252, 1258 (10th Cir. 2006); cf.
Ball v. Famiglio, 726 F.3d 448, 459 (3d Cir. 2013),
abrogated on other grounds by, Coleman v. Tollefson,
135 S.Ct. 1759, 1763 (2015). As Mr. Beltz is proceeding
pro se, the Court construes his allegations
liberally. Higgs v. Att'y Gen., 655 F.3d 333,
339 (3d Cir. 2011).
a state prisoner is challenging the very fact or duration of
his physical imprisonment, and the relief he seeks is a
determination that he is entitled to immediate release or a
speedier release from that imprisonment, his sole federal
remedy is a writ of habeas corpus." See Preiser v.
Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 500 (1973). Accordingly, any
challenges to Mr. Beltz's convictions and related
imprisonment must be pursued in a habeas case after
exhausting state remedies rather than a civil rights action.
See 28 U.S.C. § 2254.
"to recover damages [or other relief] for allegedly
unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other
harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a
conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983 plaintiff must
prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on
direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid
by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or
called into question by a federal court's issuance of a
writ of habeas corpus[.]" Heck v. Humphrey, 512
U.S. 477, 486-87 (1994) (footnote and citation omitted);
see also Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 81-82
(2005) ("[A] state prisoner's § 1983 action is
barred (absent prior invalidation)-no matter the relief
sought (damages or equitable relief), no matter the target of
the prisoner's suit (state conduct leading to conviction
or internal prison proceedings)- if success in that action
would necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of confinement
or its duration." (emphasis omitted)). Mr. Beltz's
claims are predicated on allegations that he was maliciously
prosecuted and falsely convicted due to prosecutorial
misconduct. However, as Mr. Beltz's convictions have not
been overturned or otherwise invalidated, his claims are not
cognizable in a civil rights action.
Mr. Beltz's claims were cognizable in a civil rights
action, many of the defendants he sued are immune from suit.
Judge Coyle is entitled to absolute judicial immunity from
Mr. Beltz's claims against her because judges are
entitled to absolute immunity from civil rights claims based
on acts or omissions taken in their judicial capacity, so
long as they do not act in the complete absence of all
jurisdiction. See Stump v. Sparkman,435 U.S. 349,
355-56 (1978); Azubuko v. Royal,443 F.3d 302,
303-04 (3d Cir. 2006) (per curiam). Similarly, any of the
prosecutors who Mr. Beltz sued or intended to sue are
entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity from Mr.
Beltz's damages claims because prosecutors are entitled
to absolute immunity from liability under § 1983 for
acts that are "intimately associated with the judicial
phase of the criminal process" such as "initiating
a prosecution and . . . presenting the State's
case." Imbler v. Pachtman,424 U.S. 409, 430-31
(1976). District Attorneys and other supervisory prosecutors
are likewise entitled to absolute immunity from claims based
on their role in pursuing a prosecution on behalf of the
Commonwealth. See Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, 555 U.S.
335, 348-49 (2009). Mr. Beltz's claims ...