Stafford v. Morris, 062620 FED3, 19-1924

Docket Nº:19-1924
Opinion Judge:AMBRO, CIRCUIT JUDGE
Party Name:KENNETH STAFFORD, Appellant v. TROOPER JOSEPH B. MORRIS; TROOPER DANIEL HARRIS TROOPER JOSEPH YURAN; TROOPER RONALD FLAGLEY, individually and in their official capacities as trooper for the State Police; CORPORAL DANIEL SIDLINGER, individually and in his official capacity as corporal for the State Police; JOHN DOES 1-10
Judge Panel:Before: AMBRO, HARDIMAN, and RESTREPO, Circuit Judges
Case Date:June 26, 2020
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
 
FREE EXCERPT

KENNETH STAFFORD, Appellant

v.

TROOPER JOSEPH B. MORRIS; TROOPER DANIEL HARRIS TROOPER JOSEPH YURAN; TROOPER RONALD FLAGLEY, individually and in their official capacities as trooper for the State Police; CORPORAL DANIEL SIDLINGER, individually and in his official capacity as corporal for the State Police; JOHN DOES 1-10

No. 19-1924

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

June 26, 2020

NOT PRECEDENTIAL

Submitted Under Third Circuit L.A.R. 34.1(a) May 26, 2020

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 2-17-cv-00749) District Judge: Honorable Marilyn J. Horan

Before: AMBRO, HARDIMAN, and RESTREPO, Circuit Judges

OPINION [*]

AMBRO, CIRCUIT JUDGE

Kenneth Stafford appeals the District Court's grant of summary judgment to Trooper Joseph B. Morris on Stafford's malicious prosecution claim. He argues that there was no probable cause to arrest and prosecute him. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm the District Court's order.

I.

Factual and Procedural Background

On February 24, 2015, Trooper Daniel Harris filed a report concerning a child-luring incident reported by two children. An unidentified man in a dark green pickup truck approached a twelve-year-old girl (the "First Victim") and an eight-year-old boy (the "Second Victim") as they were walking toward their school bus stop and offered them a ride. The children, who were brother and sister, described the perpetrator as a white man in his fifties with a thin build, short brown hair, and a mostly gray, full beard, wearing a brown baseball cap and transition-style glasses. The sister also reported that the same man, driving the same truck, had approached her a few weeks earlier.

On April 6, 2015, Trooper Joseph P. Yuran filed a child-luring incident report concerning a nine-year-old boy (the "Third Victim"). A man in a white truck stopped the boy and asked him if he wanted any candy. The child described the perpetrator as an old white man with a four-inch "salt [and] pepper" beard wearing a brown baseball cap and glasses. Appx. 252.

On April 13, 2015, Corporal Dan J. Sindlinger filed a child-luring incident report concerning a fourteen-year-old girl (the "Fourth Victim"). A man in a white truck approached the girl and asked her to help him find his dog. She responded "no" when the perpetrator approached her and ran back to her house. Id. at 257. She described the perpetrator as a male in his forties or fifties with salt and pepper hair and a "bushy" goatee. Id. at 258.

After responding to the April 13 occurrence, Sindlinger spoke with Yuran, who told him about one of the first two incidents. Sindlinger then learned that all three had similar suspect descriptions and that all the children lived "in sight of one another." Id. His report stated that one of the incidents involved a tan pickup truck and the other two involved a white pickup truck. On April 14, 2015, a press release was submitted to local news media regarding the three incidents, and it included a description of the suspect and the vehicles involved.

The day after the press release, the wife of Stafford reported him missing. Trooper Ronald Fagley responded to the call and prepared a missing persons report. The wife stated that Stafford had left a note, in which he wrote that he was having "crazy thoughts" and had reached his "breaking point." Appx. 262. She and Stafford's son both reported that Stafford had never done anything like this and noted that he was stressed and had argued with his wife recently.

Shortly thereafter, Morris, who had been investigating the child luring incidents, learned about Stafford's disappearance during a briefing. Morris began to view Stafford as a suspect because he believed that the description of Stafford matched those of the luring incidents' perpetrator, and because he had disappeared the day after the press release announcing these incidents.

Morris then developed a photographic line up of individuals who looked similar to Stafford and presented it to three of the victims, ages nine through fourteen. The First Victim did not identify Stafford as her perpetrator and "indicated that she did not recognize anyone in the lineup." Appx. 269. Morris did not meet with the Second Victim. The Third Victim identified Stafford as the perpetrator, agreed that he was "one hundred percent positive" that Stafford had tried to lure him. Id. Finally, the Fourth Victim indicated the perpetrator looked similar to two images in the lineup, pointing to Stafford's and another individual's photos, but stated that she was not sure.

On April 20, 2015, Morris filed a criminal complaint against Stafford, accusing him of violating § 2910(a) of the Pennsylvania Criminal Code (luring a child into a motor vehicle or structure). Morris drafted an affidavit of probable cause (the "Morris Affidavit") in support of the criminal complaint. The Morris Affidavit set forth, among other things: (1) the perpetrator of at least two of the incidents was in his fifties, had a beard, and drove a white truck; (2) Stafford looked similar and had a white truck on his property; (3) the day after the press release informing the public of the child luring incidents, Stafford disappeared, leaving a note for his wife in which he stated that he was having "crazy thoughts," Appx. 262; and (4) one of the victims, when shown a photographic array, was "one hundred percent positive," id. at 269, that Stafford was the man who approached him in a white truck and asked him whether he wanted candy, id. at 453-54.

A magistrate judge concluded that the information in the Morris Affidavit established probable cause and issued an arrest warrant for Stafford. He was arrested and charged with two felony counts of child luring, one misdemeanor count of child luring, and one count of flight to avoid apprehension or punishment. Following a jury trial, he was found not guilty on all charges.

Stafford then brought this action against all officers involved, alleging false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution, but later withdrew his claims against all defendants except Morris. Following discovery, the District Court granted Morris's motion for summary judgment. Stafford argued that the Morris Affidavit contained material misstatements and omissions that defeated probable cause. The District Court concluded, after reconstructing word-by-word the Morris Affidavit to exclude any alleged misstatements and include any omitted information, that a magistrate judge still could have found probable cause for Stafford's arrest and prosecution, and hence accordingly all his claims failed. See Stafford v. Morris, No. 17-cv-749, 2019 WL 1367427, at *7-9 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 26, 2019).

This appeal followed.

II.

Discussion1

A claim for malicious prosecution requires evidence that: (1) the defendant began a criminal proceeding; (2) he did so without probable cause; (3) he acted maliciously; (4) the proceeding ended in the plaintiff's favor; and (5) the plaintiff suffered a deprivation of liberty. See DiBella v. Borough of Beachwood, 407 F.3d 599, 601 (3d Cir. 2005). Stafford attacks the District Court's conclusion as to probable cause. He repeats that the Morris Affidavit contained material omissions and false statements of fact that defeated the probable cause finding by the magistrate judge.

"[P]robable cause to arrest exists when the facts and circumstances within the arresting officer's knowledge are sufficient in themselves to warrant a reasonable person to believe that an offense has been or is being committed by the person to be arrested." Dempsey v. Bucknell Univ., 834 F.3d 457, 467 (3d Cir. 2016) (citation omitted). It is a "fluid concept" and requires courts to apply a...

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