332 F.3d 199 (3rd Cir. 2003), 02-3580, Johnson v. Campbell

Docket Nº:02-3580
Citation:332 F.3d 199
Party Name:Johnson v. Campbell
Case Date:June 05, 2003
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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332 F.3d 199 (3rd Cir. 2003)

Steven Gregory JOHNSON, Appellant


Erik CAMPBELL, Officer, in his official and personal capacity; the Township of Dewey Beach, a political subdivision of Sussex County, Delaware; Ocean Breeze Limited Liability Company dba The Sea Esta III Motel; Christine Price.

No. 02-3580.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

June 5, 2003

Argued March 11, 2003.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Victor F. Battaglia, [Argued], Biggs & Battaglia, Wilmington, DE, for Appellant.

Megan Mantzavinos, [Argued], Marks, O'Neill, O'Brien & Courtney, Wilmington, DE, for Appellees.

Before RENDELL, AMBRO and MAGILL, [*] Circuit Judges.


RENDELL, Circuit Judge.

Steven Gregory Johnson, an African-American high school basketball coach, was stopped by the police on the basis of a "suspicious person" complaint and arrested for disorderly conduct after he swore at the investigating police officer. He was released without charge. Johnson then brought an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the arresting officer, Officer Erik Campbell, asserting that Campbell had violated his constitutional rights by detaining and arresting him without cause and due to his race. Johnson was denied relief by a jury verdict after trial. Johnson now seeks reversal of the District Court's denial of his motion for judgment as a matter of law and for a new trial. Because we conclude that the evidence was insufficient to establish that the stop was based on a reasonable, articulable suspicion that Johnson was engaged in criminal activity, or that the arrest was based on probable cause to believe that Johnson was committing the crime of disorderly conduct, we will reverse and grant Johnson judgment as a matter of law.


This case comes to us after a jury verdict finding no liability on the part of Officer Campbell for the violation of Johnson's

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rights. We are mindful of the deference that we owe such verdicts, see Starceski v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 54 F.3d 1089, 1095 (3d Cir. 1995), and therefore present the facts established at trial in the light most favorable to Campbell.

Steven Johnson was a forty-four year old African-American who coaches basketball for William Penn High School in New Castle, Delaware. In December 1999, Johnson's team participated in the Slam Dunk to the Beach Tournament in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware. During the tournament, Johnson, his assistant coach Donald Abblitt, and the team stayed at the Sea Esta III Motel (the "Motel") in Dewey Beach.

The team checked into the Motel on December 27 and played their first game the next day. Following the game, the team returned to the Wilmington area to be with their families over the holidays. The team returned to the Motel after dark on December 29. During the drive back, Abblitt and Johnson had a disagreement regarding one of the students. When they arrived at the Motel, Johnson went across the street to get a cup of coffee, leaving Abblitt to settle the students into their rooms.

When Johnson returned to the Motel, he stopped in the office for a few minutes. The Motel office was very small, the principal feature of which was the front counter. In one corner was an area with coffee and free newspapers. Christine Price, who had previously been a fourteen-year veteran of the police force, was the clerk on duty at the time. She said hello to Johnson, who mumbled back that he was staying there. She asked him if it was cold out, and he replied that it was, and that he had just been across the street at the gas station. Johnson spoke in a very clipped manner but politely answered the questions Price put to him. After they spoke, Johnson walked over to the newspapers and started flipping through them. A few minutes later, he started acting agitated, pacing back and forth, looking out the window, rubbing his head, and glancing up at the television. His actions made Price nervous, partly because she had been robbed five months earlier by two young black males, one of whom had previously been a guest at the Motel.

After finishing his coffee, Johnson took the newspaper and left the office. Price could not see where he went but believed he had gone out to the parking lot. She had been on the phone to her husband, and as soon as Johnson was gone, she told him that she was upset and scared, and asked him to call the Dewey Beach Police Department to come check on her welfare. Her husband called the police, explaining that his wife was upset and he wanted them to check it out because she had previously been the victim of a robbery.

Sergeant George Berry then went to the Motel office and spoke to Price about the complaint. He was joined shortly thereafter by Officer Erik Campbell. Berry knew that Price had been trained as a police officer. In fact, Berry had worked with her a number of times when she was a state trooper, so he trusted her judgment. Price told him that a black male, approximately 5'9"', wearing a brown jacket, who had said he was a guest at the Motel, had entered the lobby, picked up a paper, and left. She explained that the man's actions, "the way he was walking and pacing around the office and his body language" had made her nervous and scared her.

Campbell overheard part of the conversation between Berry and Price but did not himself ask any questions of Price, as he was distracted by a basketball player who had come into the office. After Price gave a description of Johnson, Berry directed

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Campbell to search for a man matching that description. Campbell left the lobby and began looking around the Motel and parking lot. He saw Johnson reading a paper in the driver's seat of a green van with Abblitt beside him. Campbell approached the van from the front so he did not notice that it was marked "Colonial School District" nor that it bore a "State Owned" license tag. Although he did not think that Johnson had committed any crime, he did believe that Johnson matched the description of the man who had made Price nervous. Campbell approached the van and gestured to Johnson to roll down his window. He then told Johnson that he "was being detained."

Johnson stared back at Campbell and did not at first comply with Campbell's request to roll down his window. After Campbell asked a few more times, Johnson rolled his window down a few inches. Campbell then asked Johnson for identification, which Johnson refused to provide, asking what the problem was and why he was being asked for identification. Campbell responded that Johnson was required by Delaware law to provide identification and that as soon as Johnson gave his identification, he could be on his way. Johnson continued giving Campbell a "hard time," questioning Campbell about his motives for interrogating him, saying he had done nothing wrong. Campbell explained that he was investigating a "suspicious person" complaint and told Johnson that he matched the description. Johnson did not accept this explanation or hand over his ID; he continued to ask why he had to provide identification. Campbell tried to contact Berry by radio, thinking that Berry would be able to give him more information on what Price had said. Campbell was unable to get through to Berry but remained on the radio, speaking to his dispatcher.

Around this time, Abblitt exited the passenger side of the van and approached Campbell, asking what the problem was. Members of the team also came out of their rooms and watched the events unfold in the parking lot.

When Campbell got off the radio, he heard Johnson mutter "son of a bitch." Campbell then turned to Abblitt, said, "I know you heard it," and placed Johnson under arrest for disorderly conduct, for his use of profane language in public. Johnson was taken to the police station and detained for less than an hour. He was released without being charged.

Johnson then filed an action under section 1983 in the United States District Court for the District of Delaware against Campbell and his employer, the Township of Dewey Beach, alleging that the stop and arrest had violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures and his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection. 1 Johnson's claims went to trial before a jury. 2 At trial, Johnson submitted proposed jury instructions on the federal standard for reasonable, articulable suspicion that would justify a stop, and on the limitation imposed on the Delaware disorderly conduct statute, restricting that conduct, if based on words, to "fighting words." The District Court refused to give those instructions. Instead, the Court instructed the jury on Delaware law allowing the police to stop anyone whom the officer had reasonable ground to suspect was about to commit a crime. See Del.Code Ann. tit. 11, § 1902 (2000). Regarding the disorderly

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conduct statute, the Court described the statutory offense exactly as written, without making any distinction between protected and unprotected speech. See Del.Code Ann. tit. 11, § 1301 (2000).

At the close of evidence, Johnson moved under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 for judgment as a matter of law, which was denied. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Campbell and the Township. The jury specifically found that neither Johnson's detention nor his arrest was due to racial discrimination or in violation of his constitutional right not to be deprived of liberty without due process of law. 3 After trial, Johnson renewed his motion for judgment as a matter of law and moved in the alternative for a new trial. He argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury's findings that Campbell had reasonable suspicion to stop him and probable cause to arrest him, and that the jury instructions on reasonable suspicion and disorderly...

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