Federal judge dismisses false arrest, malicious prosecution claims

By Nicholas Malfitano | Jul 10, 2015

U.S. District Judge Gerald J. Pappert  

PHILADELPHIA – Last Wednesday, a federal judge granted a summary judgment motion brought against a Cheltenham woman and former Philadelphia police officer by her resident township and three of its police officers.

On July 1, Judge Gerald J. Pappert of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania threw out claims of false arrest and malicious prosecution brought by Robbi Huff against Cheltenham Township, Officer Stewart Coyle, Officer Richard Schaffer, and an unidentified “John Doe” officer from the Cheltenham Police Department who held the rank of supervising sergeant.

On Sept. 27, 2012, Huff visited Philip Porter of Wyncote at his residence on Arboretum Road. Porter, Huff’s then-boyfriend, allegedly argued with her inside a car located on his property.

After they both stepped out of the car, Huff broke Porter’s cell phone, at which point Porter allegedly assaulted her. After Huff got up from Porter’s initial alleged punch, Porter supposedly punched Huff again and knocked her to the ground. Porter then ran into his house, and Huff called 9-1-1.

Coyle responded to Huff’s 9-1-1 call, but according to the lawsuit, did not arrest Porter for assault despite observing Huff’s visible injuries from being punched minutes earlier. Huff requested a supervisor come to the scene at that point, which is when Schaffer and Doe arrived.

When Huff demanded Porter be arrested, Schaffer and Doe allegedly threatened her with arrest if they were to lock up Porter too. Huff protested she was the victim of domestic abuse, but at that point, Huff was handcuffed and taken into custody – though her suit even claimed Porter spoke on her behalf and claimed she “didn’t do anything wrong.”

However, Coyle maintained both Huff and Porter had visible injuries and that circumstance would require arresting them both, to which he claimed Huff responded, “Then, lock me the (expletive deleted) up.” Huff denied this exchange transpired.

Huff and Porter were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. The charges against Huff were eventually dismissed by a magistrate judge, although the parties disagree as to why.

Huff claims that the charge against her was dismissed because Coyle failed to make out a prima facie case at the hearing. Conversely, Defendants contend that the case was dismissed because Coyle told the magistrate at the hearing that, since Huff and Porter had reconciled and sought counseling, he did not wish to pursue the charges and jeopardize their employment.

In response to Huff’s September lawsuit alleging false arrest and malicious prosecution, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that, at the very least, police had probable cause to arrest Huff for criminal mischief since she admitted to breaking Porter’s phone.

Pappert outlined Huff’s burden of proof before providing his own rationale.

“A prima facie case requires Huff to demonstrate that: (1) Defendants deprived her of a federal right; and (2) Defendants were acting under color of state law. Here, Huff alleges that Defendants deprived her of her Fourth Amendment right to be free from illegal arrest,” Pappert explained.

“The Fourth Amendment prohibits arrests without probable cause. Probable cause requires more than mere suspicion, but does not ‘require the same type of specific evidence of each element of the offense as would be needed to support a conviction.”

Pappert defined the test for an arrest without probable cause as “an objective one, based on the facts available to the officers at the moment of arrest.”

Pappert continued, “In assessing the presence of probable cause, a court must determine the fact pattern the officer encountered and, in light of that, whether the arresting officer had probable cause to believe that a criminal offense has been or is being committed.”

Pappert stated material facts in the case “preclude” a finding at this stage that Coyle and Schaffer had probable cause to arrest Huff for disorderly conduct or domestic violence.

“The photographic evidence of Porter’s alleged injuries show only a small abrasion on the inside of Porter’s lower lip. Aside from these photographs, the only evidence of Porter’s injuries comes from the contested deposition testimony of the parties. Huff maintains that she did not hit Porter, that she did not observe any injuries to Porter on the night in question, and that Porter told the police at the scene that Huff did not do anything wrong. Huff also does not admit to using profane language when speaking to Coyle and Schaffer,” Pappert said.

“Whether Coyle and Schaffer had probable cause to arrest Huff for disorderly conduct or domestic violence turns on the determination of these disputed facts. The crimes of disorderly conduct and domestic violence both contain elements requiring the police officers to reasonably believe that Huff was an aggressor on the night in question.”

Pappert said the Court could only conclude, based on the evidence, that the officers lacked probable cause to take Huff into custody.

“Viewing the facts in a light most favorable to Huff, and drawing all inferences in her favor, the Court concludes a reasonable jury could determine that Coyle and Schaffer did not have probable cause to arrest Huff for disorderly conduct or domestic violence. Many material details of what exactly happened on the night of Sept. 27, 2012 remain in dispute,” Pappert said.

“The Court, faced with a ‘he said-she said’ scenario, is mindful that credibility determinations are to be left to the jury. Thus, as a matter of law, the Court cannot conclude that Coyle and Schaffer had probable cause to arrest Huff for disorderly conduct or domestic violence.”

The officers contended they had cause to arrest Huff based on her breaking of Porter’s cell phone at the scene. Though Huff provided she financially compensated Porter for the broken phone and paid the bills on it, she did not mention that fact to the defendant officers, according to court records.

“Given these undisputed facts available to Coyle and Schaffer at the time of arrest, it was objectively reasonable for them to conclude that the phone Huff broke was Porter’s property,” Pappert said.

“All that is required by the Fourth Amendment is that Coyle and Schaffer had probable cause to arrest Huff for any offense that could have been charged under the circumstances. It is undisputed that Huff admitted to the police that she threw Porter’s phone on the night in question, causing it to break.

"Thus, even viewing all the facts in a light most favorable to Huff, Coyle and Schaffer had probable cause to believe that Huff committed criminal mischief. Defendants’ motion for summary judgment is accordingly granted on Huff’s false arrest claim.”

Pappert granted qualified immunity to the defendant officers, as well.

“Additionally, Coyle and Schaffer are entitled to summary judgment on Huff’s false arrest claim on the grounds of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity “protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known,” Pappert said.

“There is a two-prong test for qualified immunity: (1) whether the facts alleged by the plaintiff show the violation of a constitutional right, and (2) whether the law was clearly established at the time of the violation,” Pappert continued.

“At the time of Huff’s arrest, it was not clearly established that Coyle and Schaffer were violating Huff’s constitutional rights by arresting her for a summary offense not committed in their presence, but for which they had probable cause to believe she committed. The United States Supreme Court has yet to definitively rule on the issue, and in fact, the state of Pennsylvania law on the propriety of such arrests remains unclear.”

Pappert determined because the federal charge of constitutional rights violations had been dismissed, the Court would not use its power of supplemental jurisdiction over the malicious prosecution claim, which would normally be heard in state court.

“Because the Court grants summary judgment on Huff’s federal claim for false arrest and that federal claim is the sole basis for Huff’s assertion of this Court’s jurisdiction, the Court will decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Huff’s state law claim for malicious prosecution,” Pappert said.

The plaintiff is seeking compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees, court costs, other relief appearing to be reasonable and just, as well as a jury trial.

The plaintiff is represented by Patrick G. Geckle, of The Law Office Of Patrick G. Geckle, in Philadelphia.

The defendant is represented by Christopher Paul Boyle of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman Goggin, in King Of Prussia.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:14-cv-05555

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

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