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Gaeta v. Thomas

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 29, 2018

THOMAS GAETA, Plaintiff,
v.
TROOPER MICHAEL THOMAS, PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE CORPORAL ROBERT LOMBARDO, and TROOPER MATTHEW JONES, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

         Presently 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 of Defendants.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The 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).

         The 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 ¶ 14).

         Plaintiff 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 ¶ 22).

         Plaintiff 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).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary 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)).

         Initially, 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).

         A court 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).

         III. DISCUSSION

         In the 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.

         The 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)).[1] 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).

         Though 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 ...


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