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Thomas v. Christy

United States District Court, Third Circuit

April 25, 2013

S/O II CHRISTY et al., Defendants.


NOEL L. HILLMAN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Benjamin J. Thomas ("Plaintiff") submitted for filing a civil complaint ("Complaint"), see Docket Entry No. 1, and accompanied it with a complete in forma pauperis application.[1] See Docket Entry No. 1-1. Plaintiff's allegations are limited to the following statement:

Officer Christy stopped my vehicle illegally and threatened me with a weapon putting me in fear of [sic] my life[, ] causing me to flee[, ] then taking me into custody illegally. As a result[, ] I am still incarcerated[, ] and my charact[er is] defamed[.]

Docket Entry No. 1, at 4.[2]

Naming, as Defendants, the Somerdale Police Department and Officer Christy, id. at 4-5, Plaintiff seeks "damages incurred, i.e., pain and suffering, mental anguish, psychological traumatization and lastly monetary compensation for defamation of characture [sic]." Id. at 7.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act, Pub. L. No. 104-134, §§ 801-810, 110 Stat. 1321-66 to 1321-77 (April 26, 1996), requires a district court to screen the complaint filed in a civil action where a plaintiff is proceeding in forma pauperis and to dismiss sua sponte any claim found frivolous, malicious, or failing to state a claim on which relief may be granted, or seeking monetary relief from a defendant immune from such relief. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). In screening a pleading, the court must be mindful that

[t]hreadbare recitals [and] conclusory statements do not suffice.... [O]nly a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives [review]. Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief [is] a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense. [Even] where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint... has not "show[n]" - "that the pleader is entitled to relief."

Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009) (citations omitted).[3]

Here, Plaintiff is asserting: (1) an excessive force claim; (2) a false imprisonment claim; and (3) a defamation challenge. As pled, these challenges are subject to sua sponte dismissal.

The Fourth Amendment guarantees an individual's right to be free from "unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. Correspondingly, the Fourth Amendment "prohibits a police officer from arresting a citizen except upon probable cause." Orsatti v. N.J. State Police , 71 F.3d 480, 482 (3d Cir. 1995); see also Florida v. Jardines , 133 S.Ct. 1409 (2013); Bailey v. United States , 133 S.Ct. 1031 (2013); Florida v. Harris , 133 S.Ct. 1050 (2013). Thus, to prevail on a claim for false arrest, a plaintiff must prove that the officer defendants lacked probable cause to arrest him. See Groman v. Township of Manalapan , 47 F.3d 628, 634 (3d Cir. 1995). Likewise, a claim for false imprisonment based on the underlying false arrest requires a plaintiff to prove lack of probable cause. See id. at 636. Thus, "[t]he proper inquiry in a Section 1983 claim based on false arrest... is not whether the person arrested in fact committed the offense but whether the arresting officers had probable cause to believe the person arrested had committed the offense." Dowling v. City of Phila. , 855 F.2d 136, 141 (3d Cir. 1988). "[W]hen an officer has probable cause to believe a person committed even a minor crime[, ]... the balancing of private and public interests is not in doubt [and t]he arrest is constitutionally reasonable." Virginia v. Moore , 553 U.S. 164, 171 (2008). Thus, a plaintiff must state "the facts [showing that, under the] circumstances within [the officer's] knowledge, a reasonable officer could not have believed that an offense had been or was being committed by the person to be arrested."[4] Mosley v. Wilson , 102 F.3d 85, 94-5 (3d Cir. 1996); accord Revell v. Port Authority of New York, New Jersey , 598 F.3d 128, 137 n.16 (3d Cir. 2010).

Here, Plaintiff merely states that his arrest was "illegal." However, such statement presents a purely conclusory allegation the Court must ignore under the holding of Iqbal. Therefore, Plaintiff's false arrest challenge, as pled, will be dismissed. However, since he might be able to cure the shortcomings of this challenge by filing an amended pleading detailing the circumstances of his arrest, the Court will dismiss this challenge without prejudice. See Foman v. Davis , 371 U.S. 178, 182-83 (1962) ("The Federal Rules reject the approach that pleading is a game of skill in which one misstep by counsel may be decisive to the outcome and accept the principle that the purpose of pleading is to facilitate a proper decision on the merits").

Plaintiff's excessive force and defamation challenges will also be dismissed. "To state a claim for excessive force as an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment, a plaintiff must show that a seizure' occurred and that it was unreasonable." Abraham v. Raso , 183 F.3d 279 (3d Cir. 1999). Reasonableness is judged by the totality of the circumstances. See Tennessee v. Garner , 471 U.S. 1, 8-9 (1985). Here, Plaintiff asserts that he was "seized" for Fourth Amendment purposes by being arrested by Officer Christy. See Berg v. County of Allegheny , 219 F.3d 261, 269 (3d Cir. 2000) (defining a Fourth Amendment seizure as occurring when a person is "detained by means intentionally applied to terminate his freedom of movement"). However, as detailed supra, Plaintiff asserts no facts indicative of probative evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that the actions taken by Officer Christy were unreasonable. In fact, the Complaint indicates that, after Plaintiff had tried to run away, Officer Christy merely followed him and took him in custody without exercising any force, moreover an excessive force.

Furthermore, even if the Court were to enlarge the scope of its analysis so to include the claim that, prior to taking Plaintiff into his physical custody, Officer Christy displayed his weapon, Plaintiff's excessive force challenge still fails. See, e.g., United States v. Neff , 300 F.3d 1217 (10th Cir. 2002) (an officer's display of his weapon does not qualify as excessive force if the officer does it when he orders a suspect to stop because such display results from a reasonable belief that a weapon might be needed for the officer's protection). Since Plaintiff cannot cure the deficiency of his excessive force claim by repleading, that claim will be dismissed with prejudice.

The foregoing analysis leaves the Court solely with Plaintiff's defamation claim. "[D]efamation is actionable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 only if it occurs in the course of or is accompanied by a change or extinguishment of a right or status guaranteed by state law or the Constitution." Clark v. Twp. of Falls , 890 F.2d 611, 619 (3d Cir. 1989) (citing Paul v. Davis , 424 U.S. 693, 701-12 (1976)); see also Sturm v. Clark , 835 F.2d 1009, 1012 (3d Cir. 1987) ("Absent the alteration or extinguishment of a more tangible interest, injury to reputation is actionable only under state defamation law") (internal ...

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