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Ngyuen v. Commonwealth

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

November 6, 2017

TAM THANH NGYUEN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          SLOMSKY, JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Tam Thanh Ngyuen brings this counseled civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendant Pennsylvania State Trooper Jarret Bromberg[1] alleging that Defendant's traffic stop, search, and arrest of Plaintiff violated his constitutional rights.[2] (Doc. No. 12.) Trooper Bromberg is the only Defendant remaining in this case, and the claims against him are set forth in Counts I and III of an Amended Complaint. (Id.) In Count I, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant violated his Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights as a result of Defendant's illegal stop, search, and seizure of Plaintiff. (Id.) In Count III, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant violated his Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights by arresting and detaining him without probable cause. (Id.)

         Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Plaintiff has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, contending that issue preclusion prevents Defendant from re-litigating the Fourth Amendment search and seizure violation alleged in Count I. (Doc. No. 30.) He asserts that this issue was previously decided by the Pennsylvania Superior Court. (Id.) Defendant has filed a Response in Opposition (Doc. No. 36) and has also filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 32.) In his Motion, Defendant asserts that Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment false arrest claim in Count III fails because Defendant had probable cause to arrest Plaintiff. (Id.) In addition, Defendant submits that he is entitled to qualified immunity on the claims alleged in both Counts and that the applicable statute of limitations bars Plaintiff's claims. (Id.) Plaintiff then filed a Response to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 40.) On July 14, 2017, the Court held a hearing on the cross-motions for summary judgment. After the hearing, Plaintiff and Defendant filed Supplemental Briefs in regard to the Motions for Summary Judgment. (Doc. Nos. 43, 46.) The Motions are now ripe for disposition.

         For reasons that follow, the Court will grant Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 32) in its entirety and will deny Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 30.)[3]

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         A. Defendant's Traffic Stop, Search, and Arrest of Plaintiff

         On January 4, 2012 at approximately 3:15 a.m., Plaintiff was traveling southbound on Interstate 95 (“I-95”) in a black Mercedes Benz. (Doc. No. 34, Ex. A at 21:11-22:13; Id., Ex. C at 8:13-9:8.) He was traveling from Chinatown in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to his home in Newark, Delaware. (Id.) Plaintiff's friend, David Kung, was driving the vehicle, and Plaintiff was a passenger in the front seat. (Id., Ex. C at 8:3-8:12.) At the same time, Defendant, a Pennsylvania State Trooper, was patrolling on I-95 in a marked Pennsylvania State Police patrol vehicle with his partner, Trooper Thomas O'Konski. (Id., Ex. A at 21:5-23:5.) Defendant saw the black Mercedes pass his patrol vehicle at approximately 73 miles per hour and then follow closely behind another vehicle. (Doc. No. 31, Ex. B at 3.) Defendant activated the lights and the siren on his patrol vehicle to initiate a traffic stop of the Mercedes. (Id.) In response, the Mercedes pulled over to the right side of I-95, between exit 7 and exit 8. (Id.) The patrol vehicle did the same thing.

         Next, Defendant and Trooper O'Konski exited the patrol vehicle and approached the Mercedes. (Doc. No. 34, Ex. A at 23:19-23:25.) Defendant asked Mr. Kung for his license, registration, and proof of insurance, which Mr. Kung provided. (Id. at 24:12-24:23.) Defendant then asked Mr. Kung to step out of the Mercedes and stand at the back of the vehicle. (Id. at 24:22-25:1.) He then asked Plaintiff for his identification, and Plaintiff provided his driver's license. (Id. at 27:2-27:5; Id., Ex. C at 10:15-10:20.) According to Defendant, when asked for his identification, Plaintiff “was very hesitant, would not make any eye contact, and just wouldn't answer questions initially.” (Id., Ex. A at 27:6-27:8.) Defendant then ran both Plaintiff's and Mr. Kung's driver's licenses through CLEAN/NCIC and PennDOT.[4] (Id. at 28:7-28:8.) Upon running Plaintiff's driver's license through CLEAN/NCIC, Defendant discovered that Plaintiff had numerous prior drug arrests. (Id. at 28:23-28:25.)

         Defendant returned to Plaintiff and Mr. Kung the items provided and issued to Mr. Kung a warning for speeding and for following another vehicle too closely. (Id. at 29:4-30:6; Id., Ex. C at 13:10-13:13.) Mr. Kung thanked Defendant. (Id., Ex. A at 29:21.) Defendant observed, however, that Mr. Kung was “very apologetic, ” that he was “over-talking, ” and that he was nervous. (Id. at 29:21-29:23.) Defendant did not notice any signs of intoxication or have any other reason to arrest Mr. Kung. (Id. at 30:19-30:23.) Defendant then informed Mr. Kung that the traffic stop was complete and that he was free to go. (Id. at 30:14-30:15.) Mr. Kung began to walk back to the Mercedes, while Defendant began to walk back to the patrol vehicle. (Id. at 30:16-30:18.)

         Once Defendant had reached the patrol vehicle's door and once Mr. Kung had almost reached his vehicle's door, Defendant turned around and asked Mr. Kung if he could ask him a few more questions. (Id. at 31:24.) M r. Kung said yes. (Id. at 31:25.) Defendant then asked Mr. Kung about his nervousness, why he was being excessively apologetic, and why he was “over talking when [Defendant] was asking him basic questions.” (Id. at 32:18-32:20.) He asked Mr. Kung where he was going and how he knew Plaintiff. (Id. at 32:20-21.) Mr. Kung answered all of Defendant's questions. (Id. at 32:23.) Defendant then asked Mr. Kung if he could search the vehicle, and Mr. Kung consented. (Id. at 33:4-34:3.)

         Defendant then walked to the passenger side and asked Plaintiff to step out of the vehicle. (Id. at 34:6-34:8; Id., Ex. C at 20:5-20:7.) He informed Plaintiff that Mr. Kung had granted him consent to search the vehicle. (Id., Ex. A at 34:8-34:9; Id., Ex. C at 20:10-20:11.) Plaintiff avoided eye contact with Defendant as he stepped out of the vehicle. (Id., Ex. A at 34:17.) Defendant then asked Plaintiff if he had any firearms, and Plaintiff said no. (Id. at 35:15-16.) Defendant asked Plaintiff if he could perform an exterior pat-down of Plaintiff for his safety. (Id. at 35:16-35:17.) Plaintiff consented to the pat-down. (Id. at 35:17.) During the pat-down, Defendant felt a cellular telephone in Plaintiff's pocket and cash in his right back pocket. (Id. at 39:20-39:22.) Defendant then felt a soft package in Plaintiff's right front pocket, which Defendant believed to be pills, based on his training and experience. (Id. at 39:23-39:25.) When Defendant asked what the object was, Plaintiff said it was OxyContin. (Id. at 40:1-40:2.) Defendant asked Plaintiff to take the pills out of his pocket, and Plaintiff complied. (Id. at 42:11-13.) When Plaintiff took out the pills, Defendant noticed that they were packaged in small clear Ziploc bags. (Id. at 42:14-42:19.)

         Defendant then put Plaintiff in handcuffs and placed him under arrest. (Id. at 43:6-43:7.) After arresting Plaintiff, Defendant searched him. (Id. at 43:10-43:12.) During the search, Defendant found: (1) U.S. currency totaling over $1, 000 in various denominations and wrapped in three bundles; (2) a cell phone; (3) four bags of cocaine; and (4) four jars of crack cocaine. (Id. at 43:15-44:3.)

         B. Pennsylvania State Court Proceedings

         On January 4, 2012, following his arrest, Plaintiff was charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, and possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance. (Id., Ex. B at 1-2.) That same day, Plaintiff was arraigned in the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. (Id., Ex. D at 1.) On January 5, 2012, Plaintiff posted bail and was released from jail. (Id., Ex. E at 5.)

         On August 14, 2012, Plaintiff filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized as a result of his search. (Id., Ex. E at 6.) On June 20, 2013, the trial court held a hearing on the motion to suppress. (Id. at 8.) On October 16, 2013, the court denied Plaintiff's motion to suppress. (Id. at 10.) After a bench trial on March 14, 2014, Plaintiff was found guilty of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance in violation of 35 Pa. Stat. § 780-113(a)(30). (Id. at 11.) Plaintiff then filed a timely notice of appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion in denying his motion to suppress. (Id. at12.)

         On appeal, the Superior Court reversed the trial court's order denying Plaintiff's motion to suppress, vacated his sentence, and remanded the case for a new trial. Commonwealth v. Nguyen, 116 A.3d 657, 669 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016). The court explained that although the initial traffic stop was lawful, the court was required to determine whether the second interaction with Plaintiff constituted a seizure, and whether that seizure was supported by reasonable suspicion. Id. at 667. The court concluded that Plaintiff and Mr. Kung were subject to a second seizure after Defendant had told them they were free to leave. Id. Next, the court found that M r. K u n g 's behavior during the traffic stop and Plaintiff's criminal history were insufficient to establish reasonable suspicion for the second seizure. Id. at 669.

         Finally, with respect to Defendant's search of Plaintiff, the Superior Court held that “there was insufficient attenuation between the consent and the illegal detention to purge the taint of [Defendant's] unlawful conduct.” Id. As a result, Plaintiff's consent was “ineffective to justify the search.” Id. Therefore, because the second seizure was not supported by reasonable suspicion and because the consent was tainted by the unlawful seizure, “the evidence seized during the pat-down search should have been suppressed.” Id. Following the Superior Court's decision, on October 27, 2015 the Court of Common Pleas granted the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Application for Nolle Prosequi, and the charges against Plaintiff were dismissed. (See Doc. No. 34, Ex. E at 13.)

         C. Plaintiff's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Civil Rights Action

         On September 11, 2015, Plaintiff filed this civil rights action against Defendants, alleging that his search, seizure, and arrest on January 4, 2012 violated his constitutional rights. (Doc. No. 1.) On April 12, 2016, Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim. (Doc. No. 6.) On May 31, 2016, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint against Trooper Jarret Bromberg and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. (Doc. No. 12.) On July 1, 2016, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania filed a Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction. (Doc. No. 17.) On July 25, 2016, Judge Stewart Dalzell granted the Commonwealth's Motion to Dismiss, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was terminated as a Defendant. (Doc. No. 19.) On August 9, 2016, Defendant Bromberg, the sole remaining Defendant in this case, filed an Answer to the Amended Complaint. (Doc. No. 20.) On November 15, 2016, this case was reassigned from Judge Dalzell to this Court. (Doc. No. 25.) The parties proceeded to discovery. After discovery concluded, both parties filed Motions for Summary Judgment. (Doc. Nos. 30, 32.)

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Granting summary judgment is an extraordinary remedy. Summary judgment is appropriate “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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In reaching this decision, the court must determine whether “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions, and affidavits show there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Favata v. Seidel, 511 F. App'x 155, 158 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Azur v. Chase Bank, USA, Nat'l Ass'n, 601 F.3d 212, 216 (3d Cir. 2010)). A disputed issue is “genuine” only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could find 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)). For a fact to be considered “material, ” it “must have the potential to alter the outcome of the case.” Favata, 511 F. App'x at 158. Once the proponent of summary judgment “points to evidence demonstrating no issue of material fact exists, the non-moving party has the duty to set forth specific facts showing that a genuine issue of material fact exists and that a reasonable factfinder could rule in its favor.” Id. (quoting Azur, 601 F.3d at 216).

         In deciding a motion for summary judgment, “[t]he evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Chambers ex rel. Chambers v. Sch. Dist. of Phila. Bd. of Educ., 587 F.3d 176, 181 (3d Cir. 2009)). The Court's task is not to resolve disputed issues of fact, but to determine whether there exist any factual issues to be tried. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-49. Whenever a factual issue arises which cannot be resolved without a credibility determination, at this stage the court must credit the nonmoving party's evidence over that presented by the moving party. Id. at 255. If there is no factual issue, and if only one reasonable conclusion could arise from the record regarding the potential outcome under the governing law, summary judgment must be awarded in favor of the moving party. Id. at 250.

         Here, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. “The same standards and burdens apply on cross-motions for summary judgment.” Allah v. Ricci, 532 F. App'x 48, 50 (3d Cir. 2013). When the Court is confronted with cross-motions for summary judgment:

[T]he court must rule on each party's motion on an individual and separate basis, determining, for each side, whether a judgment may be entered in accordance with the summary judgment standard. If review of [the] cross-motions reveals no genuine issue of material fact, then judgment may be entered in favor of the party deserving of judgment in light of the law and undisputed facts.

Hussein v. UPMC Mercy Hosp., No. 2:09-cv-00547, 2011 WL 13751, at *2 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 4, 2011), aff'd, 446 F. App'x 108 (3d Cir. 2012) (second alteration in original) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         IV. ...


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