United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
pending before the Court is Defendants' motion for
summary judgment. (the “Motion”) (Doc. 48).
Plaintiff Thomas Gaeta brings this 42 U.S.C. § 1983
action against Defendants Pennsylvania State Troopers Michael
Thomas and Matthew Jones, and Pennsylvania State Police
Corporal Robert Lombardo. (Docs. 30, 34). Defendants filed
the instant Motion on January 2, 2018 (Doc. 48) and a brief
in support on January 16, 2018. (Doc. 55). Plaintiff filed a
brief in opposition on March 19, 2018. (Doc. 60). Though the
time for filing a brief in reply has not yet passed, the
Court is prepared to dispose of the Motion without additional
argument from Defendants. For the reasons that follow, the
Motion shall be granted and summary judgment entered in favor
material facts in this matter are not in dispute. On August
22, 2014, at approximately 2:30 a.m., Troopers Michael Thomas
(“Thomas”) and Matthew Jones
(“Jones”) initiated a traffic stop of a Dodge
Caravan Sport van operated by Plaintiff due to a non-working
headlight. (Doc. 49, ¶ 1). Plaintiff stated that the van
belonged to his girlfriend. (Id. at ¶ 8).
Plaintiff testified that he told the troopers that he was
coming from a friend's house, though Plaintiff was
actually coming from a hotel called the Budget Inn.
(Id. at ¶¶ 2-3). Plaintiff said that he
was at the hotel with a friend named “Black” and
two females, but does not know their first and last names.
(Id. at ¶ 5). He has an outstanding warrant for
his arrest in Florida for illegal drugs, though this warrant
dates back to 1992. (Id. at ¶ 6).
troopers asked Plaintiff to take a field sobriety test for
suspicion of driving under the influence because he appeared
jittery. (Id. at ¶ 9). Plaintiff told the
troopers that he had taken caffeine pills called
“Stackers” to stay awake while he was driving
late. (Id. at ¶ 10). Plaintiff then consented
verbally and in writing to a search of the van. (Id.
at ¶ 11). He indicated to the troopers that there was a
bag of money in the van, and Thomas and Jones found it.
(Id. at ¶ 12). There was no receipt in the bag
or any other documentation to prove the source or purpose of
the money in the van. (Id. at ¶ 13). Thomas and
Jones told Plaintiff that the money would be detained and
that he should present documentation reflecting the
money's source to retrieve it. (Id. at ¶
indeed provided documentation to prove the source of the
money; on December 16, 2015, following a civil forfeiture
hearing, Plaintiff's $29, 200 was ordered returned.
(Id. at ¶ 17). Plaintiff was not charged with a
crime in connection with the August 22, 2014 stop.
(Id. at ¶ 15). Additionally, Defendant Lombardo
did not arrive on the scene of the stop until the decision to
detain the money had already been made. (Id. at
initiated this action by filing a complaint on April 23,
2015. (Doc. 1). On February 2, 2016, we dismissed
Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment claim in Count I, with
leave to amend, as well as his claims in Counts II, II, and
IV, with prejudice. (Doc. 29). We terminated as Defendants
the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania State
Police, and Frank Noonan. (Id.). On March 3, 2016,
Plaintiff filed an amended complaint bringing just one count
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging a violation of his
rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States
Constitution. (Doc. 30). On December 5, 2016, the parties
filed a stipulation to add defendants and amend the caption
to reflect the names of the specific troopers involved in the
incident. (Doc. 34).
judgment is appropriate if the moving party establishes
“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 dispute is
“genuine” only if there is a sufficient
evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for the
non-moving party, and a fact is “material” only
if it might affect the outcome of the action under the
governing law. See Sovereign Bank v. BJ's Wholesale
Club, Inc., 533 F.3d 162, 172 (3d Cir. 2008) (citing
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248
(1986)). A court should view the facts in the light most
favorable to the non-moving party, drawing all reasonable
inferences therefrom, and should not evaluate credibility or
weigh the evidence. See Guidotti v. Legal Helpers Debt
Resolution, L.L.C., 716 F.3d 764, 772 (3d Cir. 2013)
(citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc.,
530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000)).
the moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the
absence of a genuine dispute of material fact, and upon
satisfaction of that burden, the non-movant must go beyond
the pleadings, pointing to particular facts that evidence a
genuine dispute for trial. See Id. at 773 (citing
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986)).
In advancing their positions, the parties must support their
factual assertions by citing to specific parts of the record
or by “showing that the materials cited do not
establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or
that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to
support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1).
should not grant summary judgment when there is a
disagreement about the facts or the proper inferences that a
factfinder could draw from them. See Reedy v.
Evanson, 615 F.3d 197, 210 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing
Peterson v. Lehigh Valley Dist. Council, 676 F.2d
81, 84 (3d Cir. 1982)). Still, “the mere existence of
some alleged factual dispute between the parties
will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for
summary judgment.” Layshock ex rel. Layshock v.
Hermitage Sch. Dist., 650 F.3d 205, 211 (3d Cir. 2011)
(quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48) (internal
quotation marks omitted).
amended complaint, Plaintiff brings just one count against
all Defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging
that the seizure of his money violated his rights under the
Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. While
Defendants move for summary judgment on three bases, we need
only consider their first argument to conclude that the
Motion must be granted. Defendants argue that the seizure of
Plaintiff's money was constitutional because it was
supported by probable cause.
Fourth Amendment provides: “The right of the people to
be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,
against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be
violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable
cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly
describing the place to be searched, and the persons or
things to be seized.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. “It
must always be remembered that what the Constitution forbids
is not all searches and seizures, but unreasonable searches
and seizures.” United States v. Ritter, 416
F.3d 256, 261 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Elkins v. United
States, 364 U.S. 206, 222 (1960)). To determine whether
the seizure of Plaintiff's money was reasonable under the
Fourth Amendment, we look to whether there was probable cause
for the Defendants to believe that the seizure was subject to
forfeiture by state statute. United States v. Berry,
2002 WL 818872, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 29, 2002), aff'd,
132 Fed.Appx. 957 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing United States v.
Salmon, 944 F.2d 1106, 1119 (3d
Cir.1991)). In Florida v. White, the Supreme
Court held that the Fourth Amendment does not require
“the police to obtain a warrant before seizing an
automobile from a public place when they have probable cause
to believe that it is forfeitable contraband.” 526 U.S.
559, 561 (1999).
Plaintiff's amended complaint alleges only that the
seizure of his funds deprived him of his rights under the
Fourth Amendment, surprisingly, Plaintiff's brief in
opposition focuses its Fourth Amendment argument on the
legality of the traffic stop itself. (Doc. 60, pp. 4-6).
Plaintiff first outlines the three reasons that the troopers
give for stopping him that night - the equipment violation,
the timing of the stop, and that Plaintiff was leaving a
hotel that the troopers associated as a “hot
spot” for drug activity. (Id. at p. 4).
According to Plaintiff, “if the Commonwealth cannot
show the initial stop is supported by the above three
‘facts' then an unlawful stop and subsequent
seizure has occurred.” (Id.). Plaintiff argues
that “the Commonwealth's stop of Thomas cannot be
considered lawful under the reasonable ...