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Watley v. Felsman

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 29, 2018

JOSEPH J. WATLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL FELSMAN, DANIEL NILON, AND JAMES SOHNS, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          A. RICHARD CAPUTO UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Presently before me are two motions: Plaintiff Joseph Watley's (“Watley”) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, (Doc. 28); and Defendants Michael Felsman (“Trooper Felsman”), [1] Daniel Nilon (“Trooper Nilon”) and James Sohns' (“Trooper Sohns”) (collectively, the “Troopers” or “Defendants”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 40). Watley seeks summary judgment on his unlawful search and seizure, malicious prosecution, and false arrest/imprisonment claims, while Defendants move for summary judgment on all claims.

         I. Background

         On May 11, 2016, while traveling from Indiana on his way home from purchasing a car, Watley was pulled over by Trooper Felsman. (Doc. 29 at ¶ 1.) Watley was issued three traffic citations for: (1) driving too slowly, (2) having a broken tail light, and (3) improper window tinting. (Doc. 29-2.) Each of the three citations was ultimately terminated in Watley's favor. (Doc. 29-3 at 5:21-23; 6:18-20.)

         Trooper Felsman testified that he first observed Watley's speed of 48 miles per hour in a 65 mile per hour zone while he was on patrol. (Doc. 29-3 at 41:14-24.)[2] Next, as Watley's car passed Trooper Felsman's patrol car, Trooper Felsman testified that he observed that the tint of Watley's passenger side window was so dark he could not see the silhouette of the driver. (Doc. 29-3 at 42:1-5.) Watley testified he could see out of his windows with “no problem whatsoever.” (Doc. 29-1 at 34:23-25.) Trooper Felsman pulled out to follow Watley's vehicle, at which point he testified he observed that the passenger side tail light lens was cracked, and a piece of the lens was missing. (Doc. 29-3 at 42:6-10.)[3] Despite this damage, the rear light was still working. (Doc. 31, Ex. A.) After pulling Watley over, Trooper Felsman approached the front passenger side door of Watley's car and told him to put his window down. (Doc. 31, Ex. A.) Watley did not do so despite repeated instructions from Trooper Felsman. Id. Instead, Watley held up a sign on brown cardboard reading “I remain silent. No. searches. I want my lawyer. Place any tickets under wiper.” (Id.; Doc. 43-2.) Trooper Felsman agreed that Watley had the right to remain silent. (Doc. 29-3 at 34:25-35:5; Doc. 31, Ex. A.)

         Trooper Felsman then told Watley he needed to see his license, registration and insurance card. (Doc. 31, Ex. A.) Watley did not immediately hand out the documents, and did not put down his window. (Doc. 31, Ex. A.)[4] Trooper Felsman then radioed for assistance. (Doc. 31, Ex. A.) While backup was arriving, Trooper Felsman continued to tell Watley to put his window down so that Trooper Felsman could see him. (Id.) Trooper Felsman also asked for Watley's license, insurance and registration. (Id.) The Dashcam Video shows Trooper Felsman saying “that's not gonna cut it, ” apparently in response to Watley holding the documents up for him to view through the window. (Id.; Doc. 29-3 at 44:20-45:1.) After additional Troopers arrived, Trooper Nilon approached Watley's passenger side window and told him he would need to “exhibit” the documents to the Troopers. (Doc. 31, Ex. A.) After Watley again held up the documents inside the car, Trooper Nilon said “no, not read it through a window, you are required to hand it to us or you will be taken into custody and arrested.” (Id.) After approximately another minute, Watley rolled the window down about an inch and handed out the documents. (Id.; Doc. 29-1 at 42:11-20.)

         After Trooper Felsman stated he was unable to positively identify Watley through his front passenger side window because of the window's tint, Trooper Scochin leaned in front of the car to identify Watley through the untinted windshield. (Id., Doc. 29-3 at 46:2-6.) Trooper Nilon then printed off the statute giving the Troopers authority to arrest and handed it through the window, which was still open only about an inch, to Watley. (Doc. 31, Ex. A.) Troopers Felsman and Nilon discussed that Watley was not responding either verbally or nonverbally to them, and that they did not believe he would respond to the citations. (Doc. 31, Ex. A.) Although the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code allows 10 days to respond to a traffic citation, Trooper Felsman relied upon 75 Pa. C.S.A. § 6304-6305 to arrest Watley and take him “forthwith” to a magistrate. (Doc. 35 at ¶ 5.) After calling Magistrate Judge Cooper's office to confirm that they could take Watley into custody, the Troopers told Watley to get out of the car or they would use force. (Doc. 31, Ex. A) Watley remained in the car for another minute, but then got out. (Id.) Troopers Felsman and Nilon, along with an unidentified third Trooper, turned Watley to face the car and put his hands on the roof of the car before handcuffing them behind his back. (Id.) The Troopers walked Watley back to Trooper Felsman's car, where they searched his pockets and removed his car keys. (Id.; Doc. 29 at ¶¶ 7-8.) Trooper Felsman shackled Watley's legs. (Doc. 29-3 at 36:13-14.) Troopers Nilon and Scochin searched Watley's car without a warrant. (Doc. 29 at ¶ 14; Doc. 31, Ex. A.) While transporting Watley to the magistrate on duty, Trooper Felsman radioed the Troopers who were still at the scene and asked them to send a picture of the sign to his cell phone. (Doc. 31, Ex. B.)

         Trooper Felsman took Watley from the scene of the arrest to the Magistrate Judge's office. (Doc. 31, Ex. B.) At the hearing, Magistrate Judge Cooper committed Watley to the Pike County jail. (Doc. 42-2 at 53:4-6.) After the hearing, Trooper Felsman transported Watley from the Magistrate Judge's office to the jail. (Id. at 44:6-8.) The next morning, Trooper Felsman transported Watley back to the Magistrate Judge's office for a hearing. (Id. at 58:11-17.) Following the hearing, Magistrate Judge Cooper signed a prisoner release directing that the summary trial be continued to a later date and releasing Watley from prison. (Doc. 43, Ex. F.) Trooper Felsman transported Watley, handcuffed, from the Magistrate Judge's office to the impounding lot. (Doc. 29-3 at 62:5-13.)

         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). “Summary judgment is appropriate when ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.'” Wright v. Corning, 679 F.3d 101, 103 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Orsatti v. N.J. State Police, 71 F.3d 480, 482 (3d Cir. 1995)). A fact is material if proof of its existence or nonexistence might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         Where there is no material fact in dispute, the moving party need only establish that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Edelman v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 83 F.3d 68, 70 (3d Cir. 1996). Where, however, there is a disputed issue of material fact, summary judgment is appropriate only if the factual dispute is not a genuine one. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 An issue of material fact is genuine if “a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. Where there is a material fact in dispute, the moving party has the initial burden of proving that: (1) there is no genuine issue of material fact; and (2) the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Howard Hess Dental Labs., Inc. v. Dentsply Int'l, Inc., 602 F.3d 237, 251 (3d Cir. 2010). The moving party may present its own evidence or, where the non-moving party has the burden of proof, simply point out to the court that “the non-moving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

         “When considering whether there exist genuine issues of material fact, the court is required to examine the evidence of record in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment, and resolve all reasonable inferences in that party's favor.” Wishkin v. Potter, 476 F.3d 180, 184 (3d Cir. 2007). Once the moving party has satisfied its initial burden, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to either present affirmative evidence supporting its version of the material facts or to refute the moving party's contention that the facts entitle it to judgment as a matter of law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256-57. The Court need not accept mere conclusory allegations, whether they are made in the complaint or a sworn statement. Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888 (1990).

         “To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must show specific facts such that a reasonable jury could find in that party's favor, thereby establishing a genuine issue of fact for trial.” Galli v. New Jersey Meadowlands Comm'n, 490 F.3d 265, 270 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). “While the evidence that the non-moving party presents may be either direct or circumstantial, and need not be as great as a preponderance, the evidence must be more than a scintilla.” Id. (quoting Hugh v. Butler County Family YMCA, 418 F.3d 265, 267 (3d Cir. 2005)). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, “the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.

         Where cross-motions for summary judgment are filed, the summary judgment standard remains the same. Lawrence v. City of Phila., 527 F.3d 299, 310 (3d Cir. 2008). When presented with cross motions for summary judgment, the Court must consider the motions separately, see Williams v. Phila. Hous. Auth., 834 F.Supp. 794, 797 (E.D. Pa. 1993), aff'd, 27 F.3d 560 (3d Cir. 1994), and view the evidence presented for each motion in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

         III. Discussion

         A. Probable Cause

         A threshold issue in this case is whether Defendants had probable cause to arrest Watley. Since this issue is dispositive in evaluating most of Watley's claims, I will address it first and then explain how it affects each claim. “Although the probable cause inquiry is usually a question for the jury, ‘where no genuine issue as to any material fact exists and where credibility conflicts are absent, summary judgment may be appropriate.'” See Stetser v. Jinks, 572 Fed.App'x. 85, 87 (3d Cir. 2014)(citing Sharrar v. Felsing, 128 F.3d 810, 818 (3d Cir. 1997)(abrogated on other grounds by Curley v. Klem, 499 F.3d 199, 209-11 (3d Cir. 2007)).

         75 Pa. C.S.A. § 6304(a)[5] provides that “[a] member of the Pennsylvania State Police who is in uniform may arrest without a warrant any person who violates any provision of this title in the presence of the officer making the arrest.” 75 Pa. C.S.A. § 6305(a) provides that “[u]pon arrest of a nonresident for any violation of this title, a police officer shall escort the defendant to the appropriate issuing authority for a hearing, posting of bond or payment of the applicable fine and costs.” “The determination that probable cause exists for a warrantless arrest is fundamentally a factual analysis that must be performed by the officers at the scene. It is the function of the court to determine whether the objective facts available to the officers at the time of arrest were sufficient to justify a reasonable belief that an offense was being committed.” United States v. Glasser, 750 F.2d 1197, 1206 (3d Cir. 1984). “Probable cause exists whenever reasonably trustworthy information or circumstances within a police officer's knowledge are sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution to conclude that an offense has been committed by the person being arrested.” United States v. Laville, 480 F.3d 187, 194 (3d Cir. 2007). “The validity of the arrest is not dependent on whether the suspect actually committed any crime, and ‘the mere fact that the suspect is later acquitted of the offense for which he is arrested is irrelevant.'” Johnson v. Campbell, 332 F.3d 199, 211 (3d Cir. 2003)(quoting Michigan v. DeFillippo, 443 U.S. 31, 36 (1979)). Importantly, the question is not whether it is now reasonable to believe that Watley in fact committed each violation, but whether it was reasonable at the time for Trooper Felsman to conclude that he had. Further, “[p]robable cause need only exist as to any offense that could be charged under the circumstances.” Barna v. City of Perth Amboy, 42 F.3d 809, 819 (3d Cir. 1994). Therefore, even if probable cause existed for only one of the three charged offenses, Trooper Felsman had probable cause to arrest Watley. Id.

         Here, probable cause existed for Trooper Felsman to arrest Watley on each of the three violations for which he was cited. First, Trooper Felsman clocked Watley going 48 miles per hour in a 65 mile per hour zone. (Doc. 29-3 at 41:19-24.) Trooper Felsman testified that the other cars on the road in the 10 minutes prior to Watley's passing were moving significantly faster. (Doc. 29-3 at 80:7-81:1.) Watley does not contest that he was clocked driving 48 miles per hour, but contends that this offense requires there to be a car behind him and asserts there was not. Although the Dashcam Video shows that there was no car directly behind Watley when Trooper Felsman pulled him over, a steady stream of cars drives by throughout the video beginning immediately after Trooper Felsman's and Watley's cars are parked on the side of the road. (Doc. 31, Ex. A.) Even viewing these facts in the light most favorable to Watley, a reasonable jury could not conclude it was unreasonable for Trooper Felsman to believe that Watley was driving so slowly as to impede traffic: considering the number of cars on the road, and that Watley does not contest that he was driving over 15 miles per hour below the speed limit, cars driving at or near the speed limit would necessarily catch up to him.

         Trooper Felsman also had probable cause to believe Watley had violated the provision governing excessive window tinting. 75 Pa. C.S.A. § 4524(b) provides that “[n]o person shall drive a motor vehicle with any sign, poster or other nontransparent material, including ice or snow, upon the side wings or side or rear windows of the vehicle which materially obstructs, obscures or impairs the driver's clear view of the highway or any intersecting highway.” Trooper Felsman testified that the tinting was “quite possibly the darkest window tint that [he] had ever seen” and stated that he was not able to read Watley's sign through the window when it was three to four feet away. (Doc. 29-3 at 81:6-22.) The Dashcam Video shows that it was impossible to see even the outline of a driver inside the car until the car was stopped and Trooper Felsman pulled his patrol car up to a few feet behind it. (Doc. 31, Ex. A.) In addition, in order for the Troopers to see Watley clearly enough to confirm that he was the person on his license, Trooper Scochin had to look through the car's untinted windshield. (Doc. 31, Ex. A.) Trooper Felsman reasonably concluded that Watley's view from inside the car must be similarly obscured by the tinting and therefore had probable cause to believe Watley violated the cited provision. Even viewed in the light most favorable to Watley, and ignoring Trooper Felsman's testimony about his inability to see into the car, a reasonable jury could not conclude that the citation based on Watley's window tinting was unreasonable based on the above undisputed facts.

         Trooper Felsman also had probable cause to arrest Watley based on his broken tail light. The lens over Watley's light was cracked, and a piece of the lens was missing, though the light was still working. (Doc. 31, Ex. A.) Section 4303(b) of the Pennsylvania vehicle code states that “[e]very vehicle operated on a highway shall be equipped with a rear lighting system including, but not limited to, rear lamps [] in conformance with regulations of the department.” The applicable regulations are as follows: 67 Pa. Code § 175.66 provides that “[e]very required lamp or switch shall be in safe operating condition as described in§ 175.80, ” which states that a vehicle cannot pass inspection if “the lamp has a missing or broken lens” (emphasis added). Trooper Felsman therefore reasonably concluded that the broken tail light warranted a citation. The fact that the citation was later dismissed by the Pike County Court of Common Pleas does not mean that Trooper Felsman incorrectly understood the regulation: the Court did not find Watley not guilty of the violation, but simply dismissed the citation. See Com. v. Watley, No. CP-52-SA-0000019-2016, at 2 (Pa. Ct. Comm. Pl. 2016). A reasonable jury could not conclude that Trooper Felsman acted unreasonably with regard to this citation because he correctly understood the law and applied it to the condition of Watley's tail light.

         Having reasonably concluded that each of the above violations was committed in his presence, Trooper Felsman had probable cause to arrest Watley under 75 Pa. C.S.A. § 6304(a).

         B. Counts I, VIII, and IX: Unlawful Seizure and Search[6]

         1. Seizure and Search of Watley

         Watley first claims that he and his vehicle were unlawfully seized and searched by Troopers Felsman, Nilon, and Sohns in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. As discussed above, Trooper Felsman had probable cause to believe that Watley had committed each of the three relevant violations, and therefore lawfully arrested him pursuant to 75 Pa. C.S.A. §§ 6304(a) and 6305(a).

         Since the arrest in this case was valid, the search of Watley's pockets by Trooper Nilon was lawful as a search incident to a valid arrest. “An officer may conduct a search incident to arrest without obtaining a warrant.” See United States v. Elmore, Cr. No. 11-00361-02, 2012 WL 2905195, at *6 (M.D.Pa. July 16, 2012)(citing Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177, 185 (1990)); see also Michigan v. DeFillippo, 443 U.S. 31, 35 (1979)(“Under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, an arresting officer may, without a warrant, search a person validly arrested.”)(citation omitted). “[T]he constitutionality of a search incident to an arrest does not depend on whether there is any indication that the person arrested possesses weapons or evidence. The fact of a lawful arrest, standing alone, authorizes a search.” Maryland v. King, 569 U.S. 435, 449 (2013)(quoting DeFillipo, 443 U.S. at 35). An arrest pursuant even to a simple traffic violation permits a search incident to arrest. UnitedStates v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 224 (1973)(search permissible where defendant was lawfully arrested for driving after revocation of his license). Since, as discussed above, no reasonable jury could find that Trooper Felsman lacked probable cause for ...


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