PHILADELPHIA – The case of a Sterling Township man who claims he was assaulted by a defendant and later deprived of his constitutional rights by a separate defendant, a Pennsylvania State Trooper remains dismissed, says a federal appeals court.
On Tuesday, Judges Kent A. Jordan, Thomas M. Hardiman and Joseph A. Greenaway Jr. concurred with a previous ruling from the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, which upheld the dismissal of Kevin Wheeler’s complaint against Chad Wheeler (relation unknown) and Officer John Strelish of the Pennsylvania State Police.
On July 26, 2012, Kevin was allegedly attacked by Chad, suffering serious injuries in the process. A subsequent investigation from the Pennsylvania State Police determined the incident as an aggravated assault perpetrated by Chad. At some point after the initial finding, the investigation was transferred to Strelish.
According to Kevin, Strelish “chose to ignore evidence about the nature of the incident, refused to return to the scene of the incident, refused to interview eyewitnesses ‘before they were ultimately intimidated,’ refused to retrieve Wheeler’s medical records, and threatened to have Wheeler ‘evaluated’ (presumably referring to a mental health evaluation) for inquiring into whether criminal charges would be brought against Chad.”
The state police investigation resulted in both Kevin and Chad being charged with simple assault and harassment in the Wayne County Court of Common Pleas, but charges against Kevin were dropped after Chad invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify in the proceedings. Kevin then filed a suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, against both Chad and Strelish.
After an initial dismissal for failure to state a claim and a timely amending, Kevin ultimately charged Strelish with malicious prosecution and false arrest, and violating his Fourth Amendment due process rights. Strelish filed another motion to dismiss, again for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The District Court granted that motion and declined to exercise jurisdiction over the pendent state claims against Chad. This timely appeal followed.
Jordan averred the trial court was correct to dismiss Kevin Wheeler’s claims of malicious prosecution and false arrest by the Pennsylvania State Police.
“Wheeler asserted in his complaint that Strelish initiated charges ‘not based upon probable cause”, the District Court was under no obligation to accept that legal conclusion as true,” Jordan said. “Beyond such bald conclusory allegations, Wheeler’s federal claims revolve around how the investigation was conducted, yet he makes no allegations that call into question whether Strelish had probable cause to arrest him for his role in the altercation.”
Jordan stated Kevin’s assertions against Strelish, even if true, did not “suggest that Strelish lacked probable cause to believe that Wheeler had committed the offenses with which he was charged.”
“The District Court was right to conclude that Wheeler failed to adequately plead the ‘lack of probable cause’ element of his Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution and false arrest claim,” Jordan said.
Jordan further added Kevin’s argument that the trial court erred in dismissing his claim of his Fourth Amendment and/or Fourteenth Amendment due process rights being violated “lacks merit.”
Jordan said, “The due process concerns in such a circumstance are not implicated in a run-of-the-mill assault charge prosecution that, from the record, appears to have included not a single moment of actual detention. As a result, the dismissal of Wheeler’s substantive due process claim was appropriate.”
The plaintiff was represented by Andrew J. Katsock III in Wilkes-Barre.
The defendants are represented by Jeffrey Stephen Treat in Honesdale and Page Darney of the Attorney General’s Office’s Litigation Section in Harrisburg.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 15-1981
U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania case 3:14-cv-00432
From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at firstname.lastname@example.org