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Gonzalez v. Waltman

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 16, 2018



          A. Richard Caputo United States District Judge

         Presently before me is the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 13) filed by Plaintiffs Ricardo Gonzalez (“Gonzalez”), Severin Johnson (“Johnson”), and Michael Scott Marshall (“Marshall”) (collectively, where appropriate, “Plaintiffs”). On October 16, 2015, while Plaintiffs were filming outside the Pennsylvania State Police Barracks in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, they were approached by multiple state troopers. After Plaintiffs refused to respond to questions by the troopers, they were arrested by William Waltman (“Waltman”), a Corporal with the Pennsylvania State Police, and troopers under his direction. Plaintiffs were charged with defiant trespass in violation of 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 3503(b)(1)(ii) for walking beyond a sign located outside the barracks stating “Emergency and Authorized Vehicles Only.” The charges proceeded to a summary trial in magisterial district court. At the close of the Commonwealth's case-in-chief, the presiding magisterial district judge granted Plaintiffs' motion for judgment of acquittal. Plaintiffs subsequently commenced this action against Waltman asserting claims for false arrest and malicious prosecution. Now, Plaintiffs seek partial summary judgment on those claims. Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment will be denied because a reasonable jury could conclude that probable cause existed for the crime charged.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs Gonzalez and Johnson worked for an organization called “CopBlock.” (See Pls.' SMF, ¶ 1; Def.'s SMF, ¶ 1). Marshall also did some work for CopBlock. (See id.). CopBlock is a national organization that investigates, videos, and writes about police misconduct. (See id.). Plaintiffs were investigative reporters for CopBlock. (See id.). Waltman is a Corporal with the Pennsylvania State Police and he was the patrol unit supervisor at the Lehighton Barracks in October 2015. (See Waltman Dep., 5:23-7:5).

         After Plaintiffs learned that police in Lehighton were seizing cameras and/or demanding individuals shut off their cameras when filming police, Plaintiffs decided to investigate. (See Pls.' SMF, ¶ 5; Def.'s SMF, ¶ 6). On October 16, 2015, Plaintiffs first went to the Lehighton Police Department before proceeding to the Pennsylvania State Police Barracks in Lehighton to get background video for a story. (See Pls.' SMF, ¶¶ 6-7; Def.'s SMF, ¶¶ 6-7). Upon their arrival, Plaintiffs noticed a police vehicle parked across a handicapped parking space. (See Pls.' SMF, ¶ 8; Def.'s SMF, ¶ 8). After informing Waltman that three people were filming the barracks, Corporal Borosh and two other troopers began to observe Plaintiffs on surveillance cameras. (See Pls.' SMF, ¶¶ 9-10; Def.'s SMF, ¶¶ 9-10). Waltman inquired as to whether Plaintiffs were “beyond the signs”, but they were not at that point. (See Pls.'s SMF, ¶ 13; Def.'s SMF, ¶ 13). Waltman was later informed that two Plaintiffs had walked past the sign. (See Pls.' SMF, ¶ 14; Def.'s SMF, ¶ 14).

         A sign on one part of the parking lot at the barracks states “Emergency and Authorized Vehicles Only.” (Pls.' SMF, ¶ 11; Def.'s SMF, ¶ 11). The sign does not refer to pedestrians or people outside of vehicles. (See Pls.' SMF, ¶ 12; Def.'s SMF, ¶ 12).

         Waltman personally took Johnson into custody and directed other troopers to arrest Marshall and Gonzalez after learning that at least two of them walked past the sign. (See Pls.' SMF, ¶ 15; Def.'s SMF, ¶ 15). Before arresting Johnson, Waltman asked him if he was beyond the sign, to which Johnson replied “I don't feel the need to answer any question.” (Pls.' SMF, ¶ 16; Def. SMF, ¶ 16). Waltman arrested Johnson and had the others taken into custody because they were in a restricted area, they were behind the building and were not emergency personnel, they did not respond to questions about what they were doing outside of the barracks, they were filming the barracks, and for security purposes, including his observations in light of the Eric Frein incident. (See Waltman Dep., 11:11-12:24 45:5-25, 46:5-25). Plaintiffs were all handcuffed and Marshall was shackled to a bench. (See Pls.' SMF, ¶ 19; Def.'s SMF, ¶ 19). Plaintiffs were seized “for the purpose of and to begin prosecuting them.” (Pls.' SMF, ¶ 20; Def.'s SMF, ¶ 20).

         Plaintiffs were all charged with defiant trespass in violation of 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 3503(b)(1)(ii), which states that “(1) A person commits an offense if, knowing that he is not licensed or privileged to do so, he enters or remains in any place as to which notice against trespass is given by: . . . (ii) posting in a manner prescribed by law or reasonably likely to come to the attention of intruders.” (Pls.' SMF, ¶¶ 21, 23; Def.'s SMF, ¶¶ 21, 23). Prior to issuing the charges, the on-call assistant district attorney was contacted, and he advised after review that nothing greater than summary criminal charges were warranted at the time. (See Pls.' Ex. “5”).[1]

         Plaintiffs were released on the evening of October 16, 2015, but Plaintiffs' cell phones and cameras were kept by the Pennsylvania State Police. (See Pls.' SMF, ¶ 26; Def.'s SMF, ¶ 26; see also Pls.' Ex. “5” (request for return of property was denied)). Waltman refused to return the property or provide a receipt for same, and he threatened to re-arrest Plaintiffs if they did not leave immediately. (See Pls.' SMF, ¶ 28; Def.'s SMF, ¶ 28).

         On March 1, 2016, a summary trial was held on the trespass charges filed against Plaintiffs resulting from the events outside the barracks on October 16, 2015. (See Pls. Exs. “25”-“27”).[2] At the summary trial, Waltman asked questions of witnesses, presented evidence, and made arguments on behalf of the Commonwealth. (See Waltman Dep., 54:16-55:24). There was no assistant district attorney at Plaintiffs' summary trial. (See id.). The magisterial district judge granted Plaintiffs' motion for judgment of acquittal at the conclusion of the Commonwealth's case-in-chief without hearing any evidence or testimony from Plaintiffs. (See Compl., ¶ 30; Answer, ¶ 30). According to Waltman, the magisterial district judge granted Plaintiffs' motion to dismiss the charges, citing “that the Commonwealth failed to meet the criteria for the charge of ‘Defiant Trespass', in that the signs posted at the time at PSP Lehighton were un-clear to the reader.” (Pls.' Ex. “15”).

         Based on the foregoing, Plaintiffs commenced this action on July 1, 2016. (See Doc. 1, generally). In Count One of the Complaint, Plaintiffs allege that Waltman falsely arrested them without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment and based on their exercise of their First and Fifth Amendment rights. (See id.). Count Two of the Complaint asserts a Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim. (See id.). Waltman answered the complaint, (see Doc. 8, generally), and the matter proceeded to discovery. With discovery now completed, Plaintiffs have moved for partial summary judgment on their false arrest (Count One) and malicious prosecution (Count Two) claims. (See Doc. 13, generally). Plaintiffs' motion is fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment shall be granted “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). “A court may grant a motion for summary judgment if, after it considers all probative materials of record, with inferences drawn in favor of the non-moving party, the court is satisfied that there are no genuine issues of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Chavarriaga v. N.J. Dep't of Corrs., 806 F.3d 210, 218 (3d Cir. 2015) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2556, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986); Brooks v. Kyler, 204 F.3d 102, 105 n.5 (3d Cir. 2000)). “A fact is ‘material' under Rule 56 if its existence or nonexistence might impact the outcome of the suit under the applicable substantive law. A dispute over a material fact is ‘genuine' if ‘a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'” Santini v. Fuentes, 795 F.3d 410, 416 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)). “In determining whether the dispute is genuine, the court's function is not to weigh the evidence or to determine the truth of the matter . . . .” American Eagle Outfitters v. Lyle & Scott Ltd., 584 F.3d 587, 581 (3d Cir. 2009) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248-49, 106 S.Ct. 2505).

         The moving party bears the initial burden to identify “specific portions of the record that establish the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Santini, 795 F.3d at 416 (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553). If this burden is satisfied by the movant, the burden then “shifts to the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and ‘come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1356, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986)). The ...

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