Nicholas Malfitano Jun. 2, 2016, 6:52am


PHILADELPHIA – A failure to state a claim for a lack of probable cause was a key factor in a Pittsburgh man’s case alleging false arrest and malicious prosecution not proceeding forward, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently ruled.

On May 25, Judges D. Brooks Smith, Thomas M. Hardiman and Richard L. Nygaard denied the appeal of Dale Shaffer filed against the City of Pittsburgh, Nicholas J. Bobbs (in his official and individual capacities), Antonio Ciummo (in his official and individual capacities), plus two unknown supervisors in the Pittsburgh Police Department (also in their official and individual capacities).

On March 13, 2013, a PNC Bank branch in Pittsburgh was robbed by an adult, Caucasian male wearing dark sunglasses. According to court records, a female teller had direct contact with the robber, while two male employees indirectly observed the robber.

Shaffer was placed into a photo array on March 15, 2013 and identified as the suspect by the male employees and his parole officer, in addition to being named by his mother as such in a phone call to the department on the crime. This led the defendant officers involved to apply for an arrest warrant -- which did not include either of these identification developments.

Nonetheless, Shaffer was arrested on March 27, 2013 and charged with two counts of robbery. After a two-day trial, a jury found him not guilty on Feb. 4, 2014.

Shaffer filed suit in December 2014, alleging malicious prosecution, false arrest, false imprisonment, conspiracy to violate constitutional rights and municipal liability under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, and intentional infliction of emotional distress under Pennsylvania law.

“The District Court agreed with the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation that appellant’s complaint contained insufficient factual allegations to plausibly infer that probable cause was lacking for appellant’s arrest, and therefore granted appellees’ motion to dismiss all claims,” Smith said. Shaffer then appealed.

Shaffer claimed four omissions from the affidavit contributed to a lack of probable cause: “(1) That the female teller initially described the robber as having braces, which Appellant does not have; (2) That the female teller was unable to identify appellant in the photo array; (3) That both male employees, who did identify appellant in the photo array, only saw the robber for a few seconds and did not have direct contact with him; and (4) That the robber wore large sunglasses during the commission of the crime, which, combined with his long hair, made identification “extremely difficult.”

“Even assuming appellees had the requisite state of mind, the omissions alleged are not ‘material,’ because if they were included in the affidavit, probable cause to arrest would still have existed,” Smith said, noting this particular case involved not just one, but two positive identifications, and the phone call identifying Shaffer as the robber -- despite not noting who placed the call.

Regarding the omissions raised by Shaffer, Smith stated they “may have been useful as impeachment evidence at trial to challenge the accuracy of the identifications, but they do not negate probable cause given the circumstances here, which requires only a ‘fair probability’ that a suspect has committed a crime.”

“Accordingly, because appellant failed to allege facts sufficient to demonstrate that probable cause was lacking, and because the lack of probable cause is an element of all six counts, we will affirm the District Court’s grant of appellees’ motion to dismiss,” Smith said.

The appellant represented by Joel S. Sansone and Massimo A. Terzigni of the Law Offices of Joel Sansone in Pittsburgh.

The appellees are represented by Michael E. Kennedy and Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge of the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Law, plus Bryan Campbell and Allison N. Genard of the Law Offices of Bryan Campbell, all in Pittsburgh.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 15-3242

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:14-cv-01674

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

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