Two Chester County, Pa. police officers who were sued by a West Vincent Township resident and his wife for alleged civil rights violations are entitled to qualified immunity and therefore cannot be sued, a federal judge in Philadelphia has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III granted a motion to dismiss that had been filed by West Vincent Township police Officer Patrick Butler and Police Chief Michael Swininger in a case in which the two were being sued by Simon and Marina Raban.
The Raban’s lawsuit contained allegations of civil rights violations as well as state law claims of assault and battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, trespass, interference with state constitutional rights, negligence and gross negligence.
The case stemmed from an incident in early September 2009 when the plaintiffs were investigated by the defendants for an incident of vandalism at a neighbor’s pool.
The neighbor had believed that Simon Raban dumped paint into his pool because the neighbor had testified against Raban at a hearing for harboring a dangerous dog, which resulted in Raban being fined by the township.
After obtaining a search warrant, the defendants went to Raban’s home Sept. 9, 2009, to look for evidence in the crime.
The officers ended up tearing the home apart, according to background information in the judicial order, but only left with a small, clear plastic bag that contained what the officers believed at the time to be cocaine.
The substance ended up being powdered sugar.
The Rabans claimed that the search of their home violated their Fourth Amendment rights.
In his ruling, however, Bartle noted that “with the exception of certain limited situations not relevant here, police must secure a warrant supported by probable cause and approved by a neutral and disinterested magistrate before conducting the search of a home.”
That is, in fact, what occurred, Bartle noted.
“If an officer executed a search warrant in good-faith reliance on a warrant issued by a magistrate and that reliance was objectively reasonable, evidence will not be suppressed and the officer will be entitled to qualified immunity from civil suit for damages even if probable cause did not in fact exist,” Bartle wrote in the memorandum attached to his order.
Bartle wrote that the probable cause used to obtain the search warrant included the fact that a similar looking black paint substance that was found in the victim’s pool was also found in spots leading toward the Raban residence and also at the Raban property.
Other information used to support the affidavit of probable cause included the fact that the neighbor had recently testified against Raban in court.
Bartle wrote that Chief Swininger was entitled to qualified immunity because “no reasonable jury could find that it was objectively unreasonable for Swininger to rely on the supporting affidavit signed by Butler or the warrant signed by the District Judge.”
The Rabans had claimed that Butler left important omissions from the affidavit, including Simon Raban’s belief that the black spots found at his home were dirt, and that Butler failed to conduct any tests to see if the substance was, in fact, black paint and not something else.
Bartle, however, wrote that Butler’s failure to test the substance to see if it was black paint was not material to determining the existence of probable cause.
“There is simply no requirement that police officers conduct field tests under the facts presented here to establish probable cause,” Bartle wrote, noting that Butler did say he believed the substance smelled like paint.
In light of the facts presented, Bartle ruled that Butler was also entitled to qualified immunity from suit.
Bartle also dismissed without prejudice the Raban’s state law claims, which leaves open the opportunity for the plaintiffs to re-file in state court.