U.S. District Court Judge Anita B. Brody

PHILADELPHIA – A federal court has dismissed several parties and sets of charges related to a police-related excessive force and assault and battery suit emanating from Bensalem Township.

Judge Anita B. Brody, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, ruled on Thursday that a motion for summary judgment would be granted to several police officers in Bensalem Township seeking to dismiss claims against them in a lawsuit, but claims brought by plaintiff Kevin Mazzarella against Sgt. Michael Rihl would move forward.

On March 5, 2014, Bensalem Township officers Jason Hill, Adam Schwartz, Greg Smith, Joseph Gansky, Det. Michael Brady, Rihl and three unnamed fellow officers executed a search warrant for the residence of plaintiffs Kevin, Steven and Jeffrey Mazzarella to search for “marijuana, drug paraphernalia, and any other contraband associated with the sale and manufacture of drugs.” 

According to the suit, the officers wore tactical gear and entered the residence with a battering ram and with their firearms drawn. The officers then physically detained and handcuffed each of the Mazzarellas, tasered two of their dogs, and conducted a search for “drugs, drug paraphernalia, and drug-associated contraband throughout the residence.” The officers involved allegedly told the plaintiffs they were here to “teach them a lesson.”

During the course of the search, Rihl allegedly “grabbed Kevin from behind, pushed him face-down onto a couch, stomped on his back multiple times, handcuffed him, and then threw him, face-down, on the floor.” 

Rihl claims this incident did not occur.

When the search was over, the officers released the Mazzarellas and left their residence empty-handed. 

The Mazzarellas filed suit against the officers in October 2014, alleging violations of federal and state law in excessive force, unlawful seizure, and assault and battery against various officers who participated in the search at their residence. In response, the officers moved for summary judgment on all outstanding claims.

With respect to the excessive force count brought under Pennsylvania state law, Brody said this count merged with the similar claims of assault and battery, while Rihl argued he was immune from liability from those counts under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (PSTCA).

The PSTCA “provides immunity to municipal employees facing liability for civil damages arising out of any injury to a person or property caused by any act of the local agency or an employee thereof or any other person.” 

Therefore, to defeat the PSTCA rationale, Mazzarella needed to prove Rihl both used excessive force and that he intended to do so.

Brody concluded there were “issues of material fact” regarding Rihl’s account of the events and Kevin Mazzarella’s account of his alleged detention, and whether the actions associated with that same detention do or do not constitute “willful misconduct” – and those related claims would remain in the suit.

As to the plaintiffs’ claims of false arrest, Brody granted summary judgment to the officers, believing the plaintiffs “do not provide any evidence or argument about the materiality of the statements in the warrant application that they find problematic.”

Brody said, “There is nothing in the record to establish that officers knowingly and deliberately, or in reckless disregard of the truth, provided false information or omissions that created a falsehood in the warrant application.”

In Brody’s conclusion, Kevin’s federal excessive force claim and Pennsylvania common law assault and battery claims against Rihl are the only claims that remain in this action. Further, Rihl and Kevin Mazzarella were left as the only parties to the lawsuit, while all others were dismissed from the litigation.

The plaintiffs are represented by Brian K. Wiley in North Wales and Kelly Affannto Ohlert in Plymouth Meeting.

The defendants are represented by John Philip Morgenstern and Rufus A. Jennings of Deasey, Mahoney & Valentini, in Philadelphia.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:14-cv-05654

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

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