A municipal police officer must remain a defendant in litigation brought by
a couple alleging false arrest, excessive force and other claims over an incident in which they allege they were improperly held overnight in a jail cell following a traffic stop.
U.S. District Judge Mary McLaughlin, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, ruled last month that Richard Barth, a police officer in Chester, Delaware County, would have to face claims relating to an incident in mid-February 2012, during which the plaintiffs say they were mistreated by two Pennsylvania state troopers while Barth stood idly by.
Nadine Francis and Odinga Arthur, who are married, claim the husband was violently pulled through the front passenger window of their car and that the wife was improperly shot with a Taser gun after an encounter with the officers.
According to the complaint, the couple was pulled over by State Troopers Joseph Harmon and James Sparenga while driving northbound on Interstate 95 at about midnight on Feb. 14 of that year.
The plaintiffs had been making a trip from Florida to New York at the time to relocate for the husband’s new job, the record shows.
Francis, who was driving at the time, claims she was obeying all speed limits and traffic laws when she was pulled over.
After Francis provided her license and registration to Trooper Harmon, the husband, who had been asleep at the time, was asked for identification as well, the complaint states.
Arthur didn’t refuse the request, but rather inquired as to whether he could first ask a question, after which the man was told to exit the vehicle.
Before he was able to get out of the car, however, Arthur was pulled by Trooper Sparenga through the window.
The husband says he began to choke after the trooper grabbed his neck to pull him out of the vehicle.
Francis then began to scream and begged for Sparenga to stop, at which time she was allegedly shot by Harmon with his Taser gun.
The couple says they were then interrogated by the troopers with regard to how much money they had on them and where they were headed at the time.
In their complaint, the plaintiffs maintain they were never told why they were being pulled over in the first place.
They also claim they never committed any crimes, didn’t pose a threat to the officers, and never attempted to resist or evade arrest and were not acting violently or dangerously.
After the troopers ran the plaintiffs’ licenses, and everything “came up clean,” the couple was still sent to a police station in Delaware County and held overnight, according to the lawsuit.
The officers ultimately charged Arthur with one count of resisting arrest and one count of disorderly conduct, while they charged Francis with one count of driving in the left lane, one count of disregarding traffic lane, one count of disorderly conduct and one count of resisting arrest.
The cops are accused of preparing affidavits of probable cause based on false statements and omissions.
Criminal charges were ultimately dismissed by a Common Pleas Court judge in early March of last year, the record shows.
All of the defendants face civil claims of unlawful detention, racial profiling, excessive force, false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution, as well as federal constitutional violations.
Barth, the local cop, argued that the malicious prosecution, false arrest and false imprisonment claims against him should be dismissed.
He argued that the malicious prosecution claim should be tossed because the plaintiffs have not pled that he initiated a criminal proceeding.
The judge disagreed, ruling that the claim could proceed because, as pointed out by a magistrate judge, it is reasonable to infer that Barth made false statements or omissions or failed to disclose exculpatory evidence in the affidavits of probable cause.
Barth further argued that the false arrest and false imprisonment claims against him should be dismissed because he arrived on the scene as backup and was entitled to rely on the troopers’ probable cause determinations.
McLaughlin wrote that it is reasonable to infer from the lawsuit that Barth was capable of making his own determination as to probable cause for arrest because he arrived at the scene shortly after the couple was pulled over, and before they were taken out of the vehicle.
The complaint also alleges that all of the defendants interrogated and arrested the plaintiffs, implying that Barth was an active participant.
“The Court can therefore infer that Barth participated in the arrest of Francis and Arthur, even though he was capable of determining that they had not violated the law,” the judge wrote in allowing the claims against Barth to proceed.
McLaughlin further ruled that Barth’s additional arguments regarding qualified immunity are premature.
“Construing the allegations in the Complaint in favor of the plaintiffs, the plaintiffs have alleged facts supporting a denial of immunity,” McLauglin wrote.