Federal judge: Tinicum Township police officer used excessive force

By Nicholas Malfitano | Jun 19, 2015

PHILADELPHIA - A federal judge has ruled a Tinicum Township police officer used excessive force when arresting a fleeing motorcyclist in 2012 and is not entitled to qualified immunity.

Judge Wendy Beetlestone of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled June 11 that officer Kevin W. Gaul of the Tinicum Township Police Department used excessive force in arresting Brian O’Donnell of Clifton Heights, and as such, was not entitled to qualified immunity in that action. The lawsuit stems from an incident on April 15, 2012.

O’Donnell alleged he and his companions were riding their motorcycles through the parking lot for the lake on Hog Island Avenue in Lester, when without warning, a Tinicum Township police car occupied by officers William H. Young and Kevin W. Gaul, was put into reverse and struck his motorcycle. The suit says O’Donnell crashed as a result of the collision, suffering a broken leg with an open fracture, open fracture of the patella, lacerations to his head and feet and spinal injuries, among others.

Gaul’s version of the story is that and he fellow officers attempted to stop O’Donnell and his companions a number of times during their ride on the trails, but that the riders escaped them each time, in effect, evading arrest.

Gaul also alleges he first left his patrol car and presented himself as a police officer, but O’Donnell and his companions did not heed his warnings and continued riding away. At that point, Gaul said he returned to his police car and gave chase, activating his lights and sirens in the hopes of compelling the riders to stop, but to no avail.

Gaul found a driveway entrance that would cross the motorcyclists’ path and waited for them to appear. Gaul then backed up the police car as O’Donnell was riding by, when the collision allegedly occurred and O’Donnell was subsequently placed under arrest.

After the incident, O’Donnell received a citation and ultimately, pled guilty to it.

However, O’Donnell filed suit in April 2014, along with amended complaints in both June and July of that year, levying charges of unreasonable seizure under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution; a Monell claim related to the officers’ conduct in this matter; negligence; and liability under the state-created danger theory.

Young was terminated as a defendant from the case this past April, according to court records.

Gaul had argued he was entitled to summary judgment in this matter on the grounds of qualified immunity, which is determined by two factors: “(1) Whether the evidence presented shows a violation of a constitutional right; and (2) Whether the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the defendant’s conduct.”

Gaul believed he did not seize O’Donnell for Fourth Amendment purposes because the evidence shows he did not intend to strike O’Donnell’s motorcycle with his police car, and was entitled to qualified immunity because “his conduct in bringing the chase to a stop was lawful or because he reasonably believed his conduct to be lawful when he committed it.”

Citing federal precedent in Graham v. Connor and Sharrar v. Felsing, Beetlestone utilized the following criteria in making her decision as to the appropriateness of the force used Gaul in arresting O’Donnell: “The severity of the crime at issue; whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others; whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight; the possibility that the persons subject to the police action are themselves violent or dangerous; the duration of the action; whether the action takes place in the context of effecting an arrest; the possibility that the suspect may be armed; and the number of persons with whom the police officers must contend at one time.”

“Applying the Graham/Sharrar factors to the facts presented on summary judgment here, the Court concludes that the force used was excessive,” Beetlestone said. “The crime O’Donnell was arrested for was not severe. O’Donnell was not riding his motorcycle on a public roadway, but on a dirt trail. He did not pose a danger to Gaul, who was sitting in his police car off the trail, or to the public in general.”

Beetlestone further determined that the methods used to complete O’Donnell’s arrest were “unreasonable," given the lack of evidence to believe O’Donnell was armed or resisting arrest.

“There was no basis for Gaul to believe that O’Donnell was violent or dangerous or that he was armed. Although Gaul may have believed O’Donnell was fleeing to avoid arrest, he was not actively resisting arrest. O’Donnell’s companions had fled, so that Gaul was not faced with confronting multiple suspects. And, the incident ended in significant injury to O’Donnell. In sum, none of the relevant factors militated in favor of Gaul using the level of force that he did to effect O’Donnell’s arrest, and that force was unreasonable under the circumstances,” Beetlestone said.

Beetlestone explained guidance from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit “required analysis of the Graham/Sharrar factors to determine the reasonableness of a use of force in an arrest, and has concluded that the factors also are well established and that a reasonable officer would be guided by them.”

“To be sure, there are situations in which application of the Graham and Sharrar factors is unclear, so that an officer’s misapplication of the factors to the circumstances cannot be said to be unreasonable. On the facts presented on summary judgment here, however, this is not one of them. All of the factors applicable here militated strongly against the level of force used by Gaul against O’Donnell. If Gaul intentionally backed his car into a motorcycle that was travelling at thirty miles per hour in the circumstances presented here, then he applied the Graham/Sharrar factors unreasonably,” Beetlestone said.

“He could not reasonably have believed his conduct was permissible under the existing precedent. Accordingly, Gaul is not entitled to qualified immunity, and his motion for summary judgment on that ground will be denied,” Beetlestone added.

The plaintiff is seeking $300,000 in this matter, comprised of compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees and court costs, other relief the Court deems reasonable and just, in addition to a jury trial for each defendant and each count.

The plaintiff is represented by Patrick G. Geckle of the Law Offices of Patrick G. Geckle, in Philadelphia.

The defendants are represented by Robert P. DiDomenicis and Mark Alan Raith of Holsten & Associates, in Media.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:14-cv-02171

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

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