Nicholas Malfitano Jan. 13, 2016, 2:15pm


PHILADELPHIA – A federal court has dismissed a man’s claims against the City of Philadelphia for alleged failure to properly train the police officers who arrested him and a corrections officer who imprisoned him, in an apparent case of mistaken identity.

Thursday, Judge Cynthia M. Rufe of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled to dismiss Antonio Javier Morales’s Monell claim against the City and additional claims of unconstitutional seizure, false arrest, and false imprisonment against yet-to-be identified Philadelphia police officers and an officer at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.

Morales claims he was arrested by two unidentified Philadelphia police officers on July 22, 2014, on the basis of an open warrant for his identical twin brother – who also has the exact same first and last name as the plaintiff, but with a different middle initial.

Morales alleged he remained in police custody at the 25th District Police Station for 20 hours, and was then allegedly falsely imprisoned by an unidentified correctional officer in the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility for approximately two weeks, despite voicing complaints about being misidentified.

In his lawsuit, Morales claimed the City violated its own policy to “check the suspect’s date of birth, addresses, social security number(s), available photo identification, booking number, and any other available sources to positively identify the arrested individual.” 

Further, Morales challenged the fact that same policy does not require the intake officer to confirm identity using fingerprints – even if fingerprints are on record and the identification is credibly challenged. Morales also argued the City has “no policy or procedures to govern a situation in which an inmate credibly challenges an identification.” The City moved to dismiss Morales’s claims filed against it.

“To hold the City liable for his false arrest, pursuant to Monell, plaintiff must allege facts supporting an inference that there is a policy or custom of the City that caused a person acting under color of state law to deprive him of a federal right,” Rufe said.

Rufe explained since Morales’s full name and birthdate matched that listed on the open arrest warrant, the arresting officer was presumed to have probable cause and was not generally required to investigate the suspect’s identity or innocence prior to arrest.

“Plaintiff fails to allege that any exception applies in this case. Accordingly, plaintiff has failed to plead a Fourth Amendment violation at the time of his arrest,” Rufe said. “Of course, in the absence of allegations supporting an underlying violation of his rights, plaintiff cannot assert a Monell claim against the City. Moreover, he does not identify any deficient custom or policy applicable to the circumstances.”

Rufe stated Morales “put forth no facts from which the Court can infer that a policy which requires fingerprint verification of identity is necessary to prevent false imprisonment, even in the unusual circumstances presented in this case.”

“Thus, the Court cannot infer that the existing policy’s failure to require fingerprint verification of identity exhibits the City’s deliberate indifference to the risk of misidentifications and wrongful imprisonment,” Rufe said. 

With regards to Morales’s failure to train claim, Rufe indicated he had not pled mandatory sufficient facts to illustrate a pattern of similar constitutional violations or of an “obvious” failure to train employees on City policy.

In reference to the City’s alleged failure to train its officers on using fingerprints as a means of identification, Rufe said, “Merely alleging that a City employee failed to implement an existing policy, particularly in such unusual circumstances, does not support an inference that the City was on notice of a patently obvious need for additional training to avoid constitutional injury.”

“Given the facts he has alleged (specifically, the existence of a policy capable of distinguishing individuals who share a name and birthdate, without comparison of fingerprints, if properly applied), the Court finds that additional amendment [of the complaint] would almost certainly be futile,” Rufe said.

Rufe then dismissed Morales’s claims against the City with prejudice.

The plaintiff is represented by Gabriel Z. Levin and Carolyn A. Jones of Levin & Zeiger, in Philadelphia.

The defendants are represented by Michael R. Miller of the City of Philadelphia’s Law Department.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:15-cv-01318

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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