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Richter v. Pennsylvania State Police

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 22, 2018

SERENA RICHTER, Plaintiff,
v.
PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Cathy Bissoon United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is Defendant Jack R. Heneks's (“Heneks's”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 61). For the reasons stated below, Defendant's Motion will be denied.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         The Court will recite only those facts that are material to resolving Defendant Heneks's motion.[2] This civil rights lawsuit stems from a fatal car crash that occurred on June 16, 2011, and the ensuing investigation and criminal prosecution. (See Plaintiff's Statement of Facts[3] at ¶ 1, Doc. 76; Heneks's Statement of Facts at ¶¶ 1, 70, Doc. 63.) Heneks, at all times relevant to this action, was the District Attorney of Fayette County, Pennsylvania. (Heneks's Statement of Facts at ¶ 80.)

         Plaintiff Serena Richter states that she was a passenger in a vehicle driven by Samuel McKnight (“McKnight”) “when the vehicle left the roadway, impacted a utility pole and/or a wooden fence post, and rolled over several times.” (Amended Complaint at ¶ 10, Doc. 23). McKnight was ejected from the vehicle and died. (Plaintiff's Statement of Facts at ¶ 1; Heneks's Statement of Facts at ¶ 1.) Two years after the incident, on June 14, 2013, a criminal complaint was filed against Plaintiff charging her with Homicide by Vehicle While Driving Under the Influence, among other related charges. (See Exhibit G to Heneks's Appendix to Statement of Facts, hereinafter “Heneks's Appendix, ” at 2, Doc. 64-7.)

         Three Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) Troopers investigated the incident, Robert. F. Wilson (“Wilson”), John P. Weaver (“Weaver”), and Gino Fagnilli (“Fagnilli”). (Complaint at ¶¶ 11-13; Heneks's Answer at ¶¶ 11-13). Plaintiff alleges that Heneks also played a role in the investigation. (Plaintiff's Statement of Facts at ¶¶ 2, 5, 7, 9.) For example, she provides evidence that prior to the filing of criminal charges, Heneks spoke to Weaver about whether to submit certain items containing blood for collection of DNA evidence.[4] (Plaintiff's Statement of Facts at ¶ 5.) She also provides evidence that Heneks and Weaver jointly decided which blood samples would be analyzed. (Id.)

         In addition to Heneks's role in DNA testing, Plaintiff alleges that Heneks made a decision to arrest her despite his knowledge of exculpatory evidence. (Id. at ¶¶ 8-9.) Specifically, Plaintiff offers evidence that there were three witnesses who saw that McKnight was the driver of the car on the night of the accident at the time that she and McKnight left a Sportsman's Club, a fifteen-minute drive from the scene of the accident. (Id. at ¶ 2.) During the course of the criminal investigation, Plaintiff obtained affidavits from these witnesses, and she provides evidence that her counsel discussed these with Heneks and submitted them to Heneks. (Exhibit AA to Plaintiff's Appendix to Statement of Facts, hereinafter “Plaintiff's Appendix, ” Doc. 86-29.) Heneks approved the decision to file criminal charges against Plaintiff, but the parties dispute whether Heneks participated in a decision to arrest Plaintiff and whether Plaintiff was, in fact, arrested after criminal charges were filed. (See Plaintiff's Statement of Facts at ¶ 9 (Heneks approved charges), ¶ 10 (facts supporting arrest); Heneks's Statement of Facts at ¶ 83 (Heneks approved charges), ¶¶ 72-79 (facts supporting lack of arrest).)

         The criminal case proceeded to a jury trial in the Court of Common Pleas of Fayette County before the Honorable Nancy D. Vernon. On January 8, 2015, Judge Vernon entered a Judgment of Acquittal on all counts. (Plaintiff's Statement of Facts at ¶ 1; Heneks's Statement of Facts at ¶ 87-88.)

         Plaintiff initiated the instant action on June 12, 2015. (Doc. 1.) Following this Court's Memorandum Order on Defendants' Motions to Dismiss (Doc. 36), the only claim remaining against Heneks is a claim against him in his personal capacity for false arrest.

         ANALYSIS[5]

         The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution provides “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. Amend IV. For purposes of a false arrest claim, an “arrest” is analyzed as a seizure of a person. See Aschroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 735 (2011). Whether there was a seizure of a person turns on whether “the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen.” Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 434 (1991) (citation omitted). Put differently, the relevant question is whether “a reasonable person would feel free to ‘disregard the police and go about his business.'” Id. (quoting California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621, 628 (1991)); accord Schneyder v. Smith, 653 F.3d 313, 322 (3d Cir. 2011) (“a person has been ‘seized' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment only if, in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave” (internal citation omitted)). The two elements of a successful false arrest claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for a violation of rights secured by the Fourth Amendment are (1) an arrest (2) that was made without probable cause. James v. City of Wilkes-Barre, 700 F.3d 675, 680 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Groman v. Twp. of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 634 (3d Cir. 1995)).

         Heneks's Motion for Summary Judgment rests on four arguments, which the Court will address in turn. Specifically, Heneks argues that: (1) Plaintiff was not arrested; (2) even if she was, Heneks did not participate in the arrest; (3) there was probable cause to support an arrest; and (4) Heneks enjoys absolute prosecutorial immunity for the false arrest claim. (Heneks's Brief in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment, hereinafter “Heneks's SJM Brief, ” 6, Doc. 62.)

         I. Existence of Arrest

         A. Legal Standard

         There is tension among the decisions of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit as to the necessary conditions for a constitutionally significant seizure absent a formal arrest and booking. In DiBella v. Borough of Beachwood, 407 F.3d 599, 603 (3d Cir. 2005), the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found that the issuance of a summons for defiant trespassing coupled with a requirement to attend court appearances did not constitute a seizure “significant enough to constitute a Fourth Amendment violation.” In other words, a requirement to appear in court to face criminal charges was found insufficient to constitute a constitutionally relevant seizure. In contrast, the Third Circuit found that requiring a person charged with arson to post a $10, 000 bond, attend court appearances, maintain regular contact with Pretrial Services, and refrain from traveling outside New Jersey and Pennsylvania constituted a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Gallo v. City of Philadelphia, 161 F.3d 217, 222 (3d Cir. 1998). The court's analysis in Gallo rested heavily on the fact that Gallo was required to attend court appearances at penalty of law.[6] The Gallo court also concluded, in analyzing relevant Supreme Court precedent, that a ...


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