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Pierce v. Ottoway

March 10, 2009

JEFFERSON L. PIERCE, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CHRIS OTTOWAY AND JASON BEICHNER, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John T. Curtin United States District Judge

BACKGROUND

This case was commenced on September 26, 2006 (Item 1). Plaintiffs brought suit against the County of Chautauqua, the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Department, Sheriff Joseph A. Gerace, individually and in his official capacity, Sheriff's Deputies Chris Ottoway and Jason Beichner and any other deputies involved, the Commissioner of the Chautauqua County Department of Social Services, Kirk Maurer, individually and in his official capacity, and the Chautauqua County Department of Social Services and any of its agents who may have been involved. Plaintiffs seek damages for the alleged unlawful detention and assault of plaintiff Jefferson Pierce following the investigation of a reported use of a firearm at the Pierce residence. Plaintiffs' causes of action are based on theories of liability for several common law torts as well as violations of plaintiffs' civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint on December 14, 2006 (Item 22). On January 5, 2007, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss plaintiffs' claims pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) (Item 23). In an order filed September 28, 2007, the motion was granted in part and denied in part (Item 36). Specifically, the section 1983 causes of action against the municipal defendants were dismissed, as were the section 1983 claims against Sheriff Gerace and Commissioner Maurer. Only plaintiffs' section 1983 claims against the individual deputies remained, as well as various state law claims.

There are presently several motions pending before the court. Plaintiffs have made a motion to compel the production of personnel files of defendants Ottoway and Beichner, which have been provided to the court for in camera review (Item 47). They have also filed a motion to amend/correct the complaint (Item 52), seeking to reinstate the section 1983 claims against Chautauqua County and Sheriff Gerace. Plaintiffs argue that subsequent discovery has shown evidence of a failure to properly train the dispatcher who directed the deputies to the plaintiffs' residence and a failure to properly train the deputies.

Defendants oppose the motion to amend the complaint and have cross-moved for partial summary judgment (Item 55). They argue that plaintiffs are unable to state a cognizable section 1983 claim against Sheriff Gerace or Chautauqua County based on the single error committed by the dispatcher in erroneously advising the deputies that plaintiff Jefferson Pierce was a convicted felon. Additionally, defendants argue that the section 1983 claim based on false arrest against the deputies should be dismissed, as the deputies had probable cause for the arrest and are entitled to qualified immunity. Finally, defendants contend that New York state law prohibits plaintiff from recovering damages under general negligence principles for a claim arising from a law enforcement officer's alleged failure to exercise due care in pursuing and making an arrest.

Oral argument on all the motions was heard on November 6, 2008. For the reasons that follow, the motion to compel is denied, the motion to amend the complaint is denied, and the motion for summary judgment is granted.

FACTS

Deputy Beichner testified in a deposition that he began his employment with the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Department in October 2005 (Item 52, Exh. C. "Beichner Dep.," p. 8). He stated that he did not recall receiving any specific training with regard to the civil rights of individuals suspected of crimes. Id. p. 25. On November 25, 2005, Deputy Beichner was field training with Deputy Ottoway. Id. p. 30. At approximately 7:30 p.m., the deputies were dispatched to the plaintiffs' residence. A neighbor had called to report that Mr. Pierce was discharging a firearm outside the house and may be a convicted felon. Id. p. 36. Deputy Ottoway contacted the dispatcher to confirm whether Mr. Pierce was a convicted felon, and the dispatcher reported that he was. Id. p. 39.

The deputies proceeded to the Pierce residence and exited their vehicle (Beichner Dep., p. 45). They went to the front door of the house, knocked on the door, and announced their presence. Deputy Ottoway told Mr. Pierce that a neighbor had complained about the discharge of a weapon, and asked if there were weapons in the house. Id. pp. 51-52. Mr. Pierce responded that there were, and Deputy Ottoway informed Mr. Pierce that it was alleged that he was a convicted felon. Mr. Pierce acknowledged that he had been arrested on felony charges, but stated that he had not been convicted of those charges. Id. pp. 54-55. The deputies then contacted the dispatcher by radio to re-check Mr. Pierce's criminal history. Id. p. 55.

Beichner further testified that the deputies entered the plaintiffs' house. (Beichner Dep., p.56). He stated that the plaintiffs could hear the radio response when the dispatcher confirmed the fact of Mr. Pierce's felony conviction. Id. p. 59. At that time, Mrs. Pierce became upset and threatened to sue the officers. Id. p. 60.

The deputies took possession of the firearms in the plaintiffs' house. Mrs. Pierce attempted to grab a gun from Deputy Beichner, stating that it was a family heirloom (Beichner Dep., p. 62). The deputies secured the guns in their vehicle and returned to the residence. Deputy Beichner testified that the deputies contacted the dispatcher to re-check Mr. Pierce's criminal history again. Id. p. 68. The deputies were advised that Mr. Pierce was a convicted felon, and placed him under arrest. Deputy Beichner testified that Mr. Pierce was "pretty compliant with the whole situation," and walked to the patrol car with the deputies, who did not want to place him in handcuffs in front of his children. Id. p. 70. Deputy Beichner stated that there was no physical contact with the children or Mr. Pierce, although Mrs. Pierce was upset. Id. pp. 70-71. Mr. Pierce was handcuffed and taken to the patrol car. He was not physically subdued, and was allowed to put on shoes and a jacket. Id. pp. 74-76.

Beichner testified that on the way to a local justice court, the deputies received a call from the dispatcher, who asked the deputies to come to the Mayville station (Beichner Dep., p. 84). Deputy Ottoway went inside the station, and Deputy Beichner stayed with Mr. Pierce in the vehicle. After about five to ten minutes, Deputy Ottoway returned and advised Mr. Pierce that there had been a mistake, stated that Mr. Pierce was not a convicted felon, and removed the handcuffs. Id. p. 87. The deputies then drove Mr. Pierce home. Id. p. 95.

Deputy Chris Ottoway testified in his deposition that he was a Chautauqua County Deputy Sheriff from 2001 through 2008 (Item 52, Exh. E. "Ottoway Dep.", p. 7). In 2003 or 2004, he was suspended for one month because of a charge of driving while intoxicated on a snowmobile. Id. p. 8. Deputy Ottoway stated that he underwent numerous training sessions involving dealing with people, constitutional rights, the use of force, and interviewing techniques. Id. pp. 19-20.

Deputy Ottoway testified that on November 25, 2005, he was on patrol with Deputy Beichner when they received a call regarding a complaint that Mr. Pierce was shooting a firearm after dark and possibly poaching deer (Ottoway Dep., p. 29). Deputy Ottoway called the complainant, a neighbor of the plaintiffs', who stated that Mr. Pierce was a convicted felon and should not have guns on the premises. Deputy Ottoway then called the dispatcher to run a criminal history check, as possession of a weapon by a convicted felon is a violation of the state penal law. Id. p. 30. Dispatcher Rob Kost advised Ottoway that Mr. Pierce had been convicted of criminal possession of stolen property in the fourth degree, a felony, on July 17, 1983. Id. p. 35.

Ottoway testified that the deputies proceeded to the Pierce residence and knocked on the door. Mr. Pierce answered, and Deputy Ottoway asked him if he had been discharging firearms. Mr. Pierce admitted to possessing several guns, and showed them to Deputy Ottoway (Ottoway Dep., p. 38). Mr. Pierce denied being a convicted felon, and stated that the charges had been reduced. Deputy Ottoway used his portable radio to contact the dispatcher to confirm Mr. Pierce's criminal history. The dispatcher again told Ottoway that Mr. Pierce was a convicted felon. Id. p. 41. Deputy Ottoway testified that he ...


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