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Richter v. Pennsylvania State Police

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

June 14, 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 a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 69) filed by Defendants Robert. F. Wilson (“Wilson”), Gino Fagnilli (“Fagnilli”), and John P. Weaver (“Weaver”), collectively, the Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) Defendants. For the reasons stated below, the PSP Defendants' Motion will be granted as to the false arrest claims against Fagnilli and Wilson, and as to the malicious prosecution claim against Weaver, and denied as to the remaining false arrest claim against Weaver.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         The Court will recite only those facts that are material to resolving the PSP Defendants' 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 Supplement[3] at ¶¶ 2, 6, 24; PSP Facts at ¶¶ 1, 16.) Plaintiff Serena Richter (“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 Supplement at ¶ 6; PSP Facts at ¶ 16). Construing the disputed evidence in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, Richter and McKnight left a Sportsman's Club minutes before the accident, with McKnight driving the vehicle. (See Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶ 23.) Two years after the accident, 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. (Id. at ¶¶ 17, 24; PSP Facts at ¶¶ 63, 73.)

         Three PSP officers investigated the incident: Wilson, Fagnilli and Weaver. Wilson was the first PSP official to arrive at the crash scene. (Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶ 6; PSP Facts at ¶ 18.) Upon arriving, Wilson saw Richter kneeling next to McKnight's body saying repeatedly “I told you not to drive.” (Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶ 6; PSP Facts at ¶¶ 20-21.) Shortly after Wilson arrived, Fagnilli joined him at the scene and Wilson explained to Fagnilli what he knew at the time, including Richter's repeated statement as she kneeled over McKnight's body: “I told you not to drive.” (Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶ 6; PSP Facts at ¶¶ 37-39.) Fagnilli examined the vehicle and saw that the driver's seat was closer to the front than the passenger seat; he contacted Weaver, a Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Specialist, to help investigate whether Richter or McKnight was the driver of the vehicle. (Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶¶ 8-9; PSP Facts at ¶¶ 41-44.) Meanwhile, Plaintiff was taken to a hospital, where her blood was drawn, and then handcuffed and transported to a PSP station for questioning. (Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶ 6; PSP Facts at ¶¶ 27-29.) During this process, Plaintiff informed the questioning officer that she had been a passenger in the vehicle, in the midst of composing a text-message, when the accident occurred. (Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶ 8; Exhibit 8 to PSP Appendix, Doc. 72-3.)

         PSP officers interviewed individuals present at the scene of the accident. The parties agree that none of the bystanders interviewed witnessed the crash, that Wilson informed Weaver of Richter's repeated statement (“I told you not to drive”), and that Fagnilli's involvement after that night was limited to testimony at Richter's criminal trial. (Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶ 11; PSP Facts at ¶¶ 50-53.) The parties also agree that none of Wilson's written reports reflect Richter's “I told you not to drive” statement, and that Wilson's reports[4] likewise omit the statement of a bystander who told Wilson that he heard Richter say this. (Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶ 11; PSP Facts at ¶¶ 50-53.)

         The investigation continued thereafter, with Weaver filing applications for warrants to search the vehicle (which were granted on June 17, 2011 and June 20, 2011), [5] and preparing a report stating his factual findings and conclusions as to the crash dynamics.[6] (Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶ 12; PSP Facts at ¶¶ 54.) Weaver concluded in the report that “[t]he dynamics of the crash make it unlikely that any occupant other than the right front seat passenger would have been ejected.” (Exhibit 1 to PSP Appendix, Doc. 72-1.) In other words, Weaver's report concluded that it was unlikely that McKnight was the driver, as McKnight was the person ejected.

         However, during the subsequent investigation, Weaver and Wilson became aware of three witnesses who indicated that they saw McKnight driving the vehicle on the night of the accident at the time that Richter and McKnight left the Sportsman's Club. (See PSP Facts at ¶ 69-70; Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶ 23.) Plaintiff obtained affidavits from these witnesses. She provides evidence that her counsel discussed these with District Attorney Jack R. Heneks (“Heneks”), that her counsel submitted them to Heneks around August 28, 2012, and that Heneks forwarded them to the PSP for investigation. (Exhibit AA to Plaintiff's Appendix, Doc. 86-29; Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶ 23.) Yet, these witness affidavits, and the statements they contain, are not mentioned in Weaver's Affidavit of Probable Cause, dated June 14, 2013, attached to the Police Criminal Complaint. (See Exhibit 6 to PSP Appendix, Doc. 72-3.) Rather, with respect to the question of whether Plaintiff was the passenger or the driver, the Affidavit of Probable Cause states only that “the passenger, Samuel McKnight[, ] was ejected and killed.” (Id.)

         On June 14, 2013, after discussions with Heneks, Weaver drafted and filed a Police Criminal Complaint against Richter, accompanied by the abovementioned Affidavit of Probable Cause. (Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶ 17; PSP Facts at ¶ 63.) The parties agree that Heneks ultimately directed Weaver to file the Criminal Complaint, but dispute whether the decision to file charges was made jointly by Weaver and Heneks. (Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶¶ 15-17; PSP Facts at ¶¶ 61-63.) The magisterial district judge attested to Weaver's Police Criminal Complaint, which contained an application for an arrest warrant or a summons; there is no direct evidence that the magisterial district judge issued an arrest warrant, but Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 509(2)(a) would have required her to do so, and Plaintiff voluntarily surrendered at the magisterial district judge's office on June 27, 2013. (Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶ 26; PSP Facts at ¶ 76.) Plaintiff was released on an unsecured bond in the amount of $25, 000. (Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶ 26; PSP Facts at ¶ 79.)

         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 granted Plaintiff's Motion for a Judgment of Acquittal and entered a Judgment of Acquittal on all counts. (Exhibit 7 to PSP Appendix, Doc. 72-3.)

         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 claims remaining against the PSP Defendants are a false arrest claim against all of the PSP Defendants and a malicious prosecution claim against Weaver.

         ANALYSIS[7]

         The PSP Defendants move for summary judgment on several grounds: (1) to the extent that Plaintiff's claim for false arrest is based on the events of June 16, 2011, this claim is barred by the statute of limitations; (2) there is no evidence to show Wilson's or Fagnilli's personal involvement in the conduct allegedly violating Plaintiff's rights; (3) the PSP Defendants are entitled to derivative prosecutorial immunity or qualified immunity as to each of Plaintiff's claims; (4) there was probable cause for initiating the criminal proceedings against Plaintiff; (5) any deprivation of liberty that Plaintiff suffered was insufficient to trigger the Fourth Amendment's protections; and (6) there is no evidence to show that Weaver acted maliciously or with an improper purpose in filing charges against Plaintiff.

         In this Court's Memorandum and Order on Defendant Heneks's Summary Judgment Motion (Doc. 90), the Court addressed two of the above arguments directly. Specifically, as to whether Plaintiff's deprivation of liberty was sufficient to trigger the protections of the Fourth Amendment, the Court found that “[t]he undisputed evidence in this case is sufficient to establish a constitutionally significant seizure.” (Id. at 8.) The same analysis holds as to the PSP Defendants and the Court thus rejects the argument that Plaintiff failed to suffer a sufficient deprivation of liberty for the same reasons. As to whether there was probable cause for initiating criminal proceedings against Plaintiff, the Court found that the task of weighing the competing evidence was better suited to a jury. (Id. at 10-11.) For the reasons stated in this Court's prior Memorandum and Order (Doc. 90), the Court again finds that balancing the evidence known to the arresting officials at the time of arrest is a task for a jury. The Court will address the PSP Defendant's remaining arguments for summary judgment below.

         I. June 16, 2011 Arrest

         Plaintiff states that she “did not, and does not, assert an independent claim based on her arrest on June 16, 2011. Clearly, this would be barred by the applicable statute of limitations.” (Plaintiff's Brief in Opposition to PSP Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, hereinafter “Brief Against SJM, ” 2, Doc. 85.) Therefore, the Court clarifies for the record that Plaintiff does not assert such a claim.

         II. Personal Involvement of Fagnilli and Wilson

         Liability for a false arrest claim requires the personal involvement of a defendant, which can be demonstrated through a defendant's affirmative contributions, personal direction, or actual knowledge and acquiescence. See Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 353 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988)). Liability for a civil rights claim “cannot be predicated solely on the operation of respondeat superior.” Id.

         As clarified above, the relevant arrest for Plaintiff's claim is not the arrest on the night of the accident, but rather the arrest brought about by the institution of criminal proceedings against her, beginning in June 2013 and continuing through January 2015. Concerning Fagnilli and Wilson, Plaintiff's theory of liability is that there was no probable cause for her arrest in June 2013, and that Defendants contributed to her continuing false arrest by deciding to omit exculpatory evidence at several stages-specifically, omitting known exculpatory evidence from the initial police reports, conversations with the district attorney, the affidavit of probable cause presented to the magisterial district judge, and their testimony at the preliminary hearing. (See generally, Brief Against SJM.)

         Defendants argue that Fagnilli and Wilson never met with Heneks to discuss filing charges and were not present when Plaintiff surrendered to the magisterial district judge; consequently, they had no participation in an arrest or seizure of Plaintiff under the Fourth Amendment. (Brief in Support of PSP Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, hereinafter “PSP SJM Brief, ” 4, Doc. 70.) However, this argument misapprehends the relevant theory of liability and the relevant deprivation of liberty under the Fourth Amendment. Plaintiff's theory is that Defendants participated in her arrest by deliberately omitting exculpatory information from materials relied upon to arrest her. The deprivation of liberty implicating the Fourth Amendment (that is, the relevant “arrest” or seizure of Plaintiff's person), includes the full series of criminal proceedings against Plaintiff. Contrary to Defendants' argument, personal involvement in an arrest may exist where police officers omit exculpatory evidence from the materials used to bring about that arrest. See, e.g., Andrews v. Scuilli, 853 F.3d 690, 697-98 (3d Cir. 2017); Reedy v. Evanson, 615 F.3d 197, 213 (3d Cir. 2010).

         Thus, the question of Fagnilli's and Wilson's personal involvement boils down to whether they participated in, or knowingly acquiesced in, the omission of exculpatory evidence from the materials used to bring about her arrest. Defendants argue that there is no record evidence of Fagnilli's or Wilson's personal involvement “in the initiation of criminal charges against Plaintiff or in any arrest or seizure pursuant to those charges.” (PSP SJM Brief 4.) As to Fagnilli, Plaintiff “agrees that defendant Fagnelli [sic] had no further involvement after June 16, 2011, ” the night of the accident. (Brief Against SJM 5, 5 n.1.) Plaintiff presents no evidence showing that Fagnilli participated in, or acquiesced in, the omission of exculpatory evidence from any materials used to effect Plaintiff's arrest. Accordingly, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted in part as to the false arrest claim against Fagnilli.

         As to Wilson, Plaintiff provides evidence that Wilson was the officer in charge of Plaintiff's case, (Weaver Deposition, Exhibit D to Plaintiff's Appendix 24, Doc. 86-3); that he was aware of exculpatory statements made by Plaintiff and witnesses, (id. at 27; Wilson Deposition, Exhibit E to Plaintiff's Appendix 4, 21-22, Doc. 86-4); and that he failed to include this information in his signed police reports, (Exhibit E to Plaintiff's Appendix, Doc. 86-6). Plaintiff also states that Wilson failed to mention the exculpatory statements at the preliminary hearing in Richter's criminal case, (Plaintiff's Supplement at ¶ 26), although she provides no evidence to show that he was asked a question that provided an opportunity to mention exculpatory information.[8]

         Concerning Wilson's pre-preliminary hearing actions, material omissions from police reports, like material omissions from warrant applications, may be grounds for a false arrest claim against an officer if the relevant document played a role in supporting the arrest. See Paoli v. Stetser, 2014 WL 3386037, at *30 (D. Del. Jul. 11, 2014) (Burke, M.J., Report and Recommendation) (“it is possible for a plaintiff to state a false arrest claim based on a false police report”), adopted in part and rejected in part on other grounds, 2014 WL 5847567 (D. Del. Nov. 10, 2014). Concerning Wilson's preliminary hearing testimony, material omissions from testimony at a preliminary hearing that have the effect of prolonging an arrest may be valid grounds for a false arrest claim. See Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 279 (1994) (Ginsburg, J., concurring) (“[i]f [a police officer] gave misleading testimony at the preliminary hearing, that testimony served to maintain and reinforce the unlawful hailing of [the plaintiff] into court, and so perpetuated the Fourth Amendment violation”). However, as mentioned above, Plaintiff has provided insufficient evidence to indicate omissions from Wilson's testimony.

         Therefore, construing the disputed facts in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, there is sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that Wilson was personally involved in Plaintiff's arrest by virtue of his omission of exculpatory statements from his police reports, but there is insufficient evidence as to omissions from Wilson's preliminary hearing testimony. Accordingly, in considering which of Wilson's ...


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