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Kerr v. Snyder

United States District Court, N.D. New York

July 17, 2015

DONALD KERR, Plaintiff,
JOSEPH A. SNYDER, et al., Defendants.

SUSSMAN, WATKINS LAW FIRM, MICHAEL H. SUSSMAN, ESQ., Goshen, New York, Attorneys for Plaintiff.

COOKER, NETTER LAW FIRM, ERIC M. KURTZ, ESQ., Kingston, New York, Attorneys for Defendants Snyder, Butler, and Lucchesi.

OFFICE OF UNITED STATES ATTORNEY - ALBANY KAREN FOLSTER LESPERANCE, ESQ., James T. Foley, U.S. Courthouse Albany, New York, Attorneys for Defendants Morrison and Moriarty.


MAE A. D'AGOSTINO, District Judge.


On September 11, 2012, Plaintiff Donald Kerr commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยงยง 1983 and 1988. See Dkt. No. 1. Plaintiff claims that Defendants Snyder, Lucchesi, Butler, Morrison and Moriarty violated his constitutional right to be free from search, seizure and detention without reasonable suspicion or arguable probable cause.[1] Id. at 2.

Currently before the Court are Defendants' motions for summary judgment, which Plaintiff opposes. Dkt. Nos. 41, 42.


A. Factual Background

In October 2011, Defendant Morrison, a United States Postal Inspector, identified a parcel with "a number of characteristics which raised a reasonable suspicion that the package contained narcotics." Dkt. No. 42-2 at 1. Defendant Morrison arranged a controlled delivery of the package with the assistance of the New Paltz Police Department. Id. The package was accepted by an individual at the location it was addressed to, and the individual "signed for and took possession of the package, [after which] he was detained by members of the New Paltz Police department." Id. at 2. Police officers asked for his consent to search the package, which he refused. See id. At this point, the New Paltz K-9 unit was called and the canine alerted to the presence of narcotics in the package. See id. Thereafter, the police obtained a search warrant for the package, which was then opened at the New Paltz police department, and found to contain eight bags of a leafy green substance which tested positive for marijuana. See id. "The individual who accepted the package was arrested and later pled guilty to possession of a controlled substance." Id.

Subsequent to this event, Defendant Morrison started an investigation into the area of California from where the package was sent, "an area... considered[ed] to be a source city' for narcotics." Id. A number of suspicious packages sent from this area to New Paltz all shared a number of similar characteristics, including: (1) they were all sent by express mail, (2) the packages were heavy, (3) all the packages cost over thirty five dollars in postage, with a maximum known amount of one hundred and thirty five dollars, (4) some of the packages had sequential label numbers, "which can indicate that the labels were likely taken in a stack from a single post office..., but they were mailed from different post offices[, ]" and (5) "[i]n most instances the sender and the recipient had the same last name." Id. at 3. Defendant Morrison "recognized these characteristics [as] commonly seen in packages containing narcotics." Id. Defendant Morrison put in place a "parcel watch" on several New Paltz addresses that had received more than one package with these suspicious characteristics. Id.

183 Main Street, New Paltz, New York, was one of the addresses that had been placed on parcel watch because "Defendant Morrison's investigation revealed [that] two prior suspicious packages... had been delivered to that address." Id. [2] At some point after the implementation of the parcel watch, the New Paltz Postmaster contacted Defendant Morrison about a package with characteristics that indicated it contained narcotics that was addressed to 183 Main Street. Id. at 4. Although there is a dispute regarding the exact dates of these events, it is known that Defendant Morrison received a call from the New Paltz Postmaster, following which he contacted Defendant Lucchesi about coordinating a controlled delivery of the package. See id.

Sometime after Defendant Morrison contacted Defendant Lucchesi, Defendant Lucchesi "drove by 183 Main Street a few times, and ascertained that there were two business offices on the first floor - one occupied by Mr. Kerr and the other by a Laurie DellaVilla - and an apartment upstairs." Id. at 5. On November 4, 2011, Defendant Morrison called Defendant Moriarty, a colleague postal inspector, to ask "for his assistance in making a controlled delivery, which [Defendant Moriarty] agreed to provide." Id. On the same morning, Defendant Morrison traveled to the New Paltz Post Office where he retrieved the package, and then traveled to the New Paltz police department, "where he met with Detective Lucchesi and Sergeant Butler, and waited for [Defendant] Moriarty to arrive." Id. The package fit the suspicious characteristics that Defendant Morrison had previously observed in narcotics packages, including that it was sent via express mail with a postage cost of one hundred twenty-seven dollars and sixty cents, the label number was in sequential order with the previous package delivered to 183 Main Street, the sender and recipient had the same last name, and the package was excessively taped around the edges, something that "[i]n [Defendant] Morrison's experience... was commonly done with packages containing marijuana in order to mask the odor." Id. at 5. Defendants Morrison and Lucchesi conducted searches of law enforcement databases, and based on these searches determined that the return address on the package did not exist, nor was anyone with the sender's name "in or near Weaverville, California[, ]" the city listed in the return address on the package. Id. at 6.[3] Additionally, Defendant Lucchesi could find no record of Shaun Webber, the package's addressee, in New Paltz law enforcement databases. Dkt. No. 42-2 at 7. Based on the above facts, Defendant "Morrison was highly suspicious that the package contained narcotics, and determined to proceed with the controlled delivery." Id.

Defendant "Morrison changed into a postal carrier uniform and retrieved a postal long life vehicle' (a standard mail delivery truck...) from the New Paltz Post Office." Id. "He then placed the package in the front of the postal vehicle and waited to be notified that [the rest of the Defendants were] in position at 183 Main Street, and then proceeded to that address." Id. at 8. Defendant Moriarty waited in front of 183 Main Street, and Defendants Snyder, Lucchesi and Butler were all parked out of eyesight of the controlled delivery. Id.; Dkt. No. 41-1 at 3. Defendant Morrison, who had "an open cell phone call with [Defendant] Snyder so that he and [Defendant] Lucchesi could hear what was going on[, ]" pulled into the parking lot at the same time as a red Saab that contained Plaintiff. Dkt. No. 42-2 at 8. The details of what occurred at this point are disputed, but all parties agree that Plaintiff asked Defendant Morrison if there was "anything for Kerr[, ]" and Plaintiff subsequently signed for and accepted possession of the package, stating that he believed that the package identified the recipient as "one of the students who lives upstairs." Dkt. No. 45 at 7; Dkt. No. 42-2 at 9. Thereafter, Plaintiff walked toward the building, where Plaintiff contends that he intended to place the box at the entrance to the upstairs apartment, which is separate from the entrance to Plaintiff's portion of the building.

At this point, Defendant Moriarty "saw [Plaintiff] take the box from [Defendant] Morrison, and alerted the nearby [Defendants] via handheld radio." Dkt. No. 42-2 at 9. As Plaintiff "approached the front porch of the building at 183 Main Street, [Defendant] Moriarty confronted him, stating Federal Agent, put the box down.'" Id. In response, Plaintiff stated "it's not my box." Id. Defendant Moriarty repeated his demand, and Plaintiff complied, putting down both the package and a laptop bag that he was carrying. Id. at 10. At that point, Defendant Moriarty handcuffed Plaintiff.[4] Id. Subsequently, Defendants Snyder, Lucchesi, and Butler arrived and took custody of Plaintiff.[5] After handcuffing Plaintiff and relinquishing custody, Defendant Moriarty was no longer involved in the investigation. Dkt. No. 42-2 at 11.

Defendants' statements of fact diverge at this point, as Defendants Snyder, Lucchesi, and Butler (the "New Paltz Defendants") claim that they did not know that Plaintiff was "the subject of the investigation, nor were they aware that [Plaintiff] would eventually sign for the package." Dkt. No. 41-1 at 5. In contrast, Defendants Morrison and Moriarty (the "Federal Defendants") claim that both sets of Defendants had discussed Plaintiff before initiating the controlled delivery, including that Plaintiff was "googled" prior to the delivery, that a photo of Plaintiff was shown on the computer at the New Paltz police station, and the Federal Defendants "learned from one of the New Paltz police officers that one of the individuals who had an office at 183 Main Street, [Plaintiff], had prior arrests on drug offenses." Dkt. No. 42-2 at 6. Plaintiff denies the Federal Defendants' version of events insofar as the Federal Defendants claim Plaintiff was specifically discussed prior to the controlled delivery. Dkt. No. 45 at 5.

After the New Paltz Defendants took custody of Plaintiff, Plaintiff "asked if they could move inside his office, so that he was not handcuffed on his front porch on Main Street, and [Defendant] Butler complied." Dkt. No. 42-2 at 10. Once Defendant "Butler brought [Plaintiff] inside his office, the New Paltz K-9 unit arrived and examined the package, which was still on the front porch[, ]" and "the K-9 alerted to the presence of narcotics in the package." Id. at 11. When asked to consent to a search of the package, Plaintiff stated that the package did not belong to him, and therefore he could not consent to a search. Id. at 12. However, Defendants obtained and executed a search warrant and found that the package contained "eight clear vacuum sealed bags containing a leafy green substance, which field tested positive for marijuana." Id. Based on the search of the package, Plaintiff was "formally charged with criminal possession of marijuana, second degree." Id. Pursuant to the search warrant, Plaintiff's laptop was confiscated because it "may have contain[ed] relevant evidence concerning the possession of marijuana." Dkt. No. 41-1 at 6. The laptop was given to the New York State Police Crime Lab for forensic analysis. Id.

Plaintiff's state court criminal case went before a grand jury, which issued a no true bill on April 12, 2012. Dkt. No. 44 at 28. Plaintiff eventually retrieved his computer when he went to the New Paltz police department where he "demanded his computer and received it seven weeks after the no true bill was entered." Id. at 29.

B. The Federal Defendants' summary judgment motion

The Federal Defendants claim that Defendant Moriarty instituted an investigative detention when he initially handcuffed Plaintiff, and that an investigative detention is warranted if an officer has a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity occurred. Dkt. No. 42-1 at 17. According to the Federal Defendants, Defendant Moriarty's intention was "only to detain [Plaintiff] long enough for the K-9 unit to examine the box for the possible presence of narcotics." Id. at 19. Further, Defendant Moriarty's use of handcuffs was for safety, because Defendant Moriarty was "the only officer present at that time." Id. Additionally, the Federal Defendants argue that based on "the brief and non-intrusive nature of the overall encounter between [Defendant] Moriarty and [Plaintiff], the mere fact that [Plaintiff] was placed in handcuffs, standing alone, is insufficient to render the detention a de facto arrest." Id. at 20.

The Federal Defendants argue that summary judgment is appropriate because Defendant Moriarty's initial detention was conducted according to reasonable suspicion, and there was probable cause to arrest once the canine alerted on the package, indicating the presence of narcotics. See id. at 20, 22. They further claim that even if the Court were to find that Plaintiff's detention converted to an arrest before the package was actually opened, probable cause to arrest existed at all times after the canine alerted on the package. Id. at 22.

The Federal Defendants also allege that they had no personal involvement in the incident past the initial detention and, therefore, they may not be held liable for Plaintiff's detention in his office, for any alleged unlawful detainment that occurred while Plaintiff was handcuffed to a bench at the New Paltz police station prior to being formally charged, or for any unlawful seizure of property that occurred due to the seizure of Plaintiff's laptop. See id. at 24. However, if the Court finds that there was personal involvement, the Federal Defendants contend that seizure of the laptop was pursuant to a valid search warrant, and "[w]here, as here, property is seized pursuant to a search warrant issued upon probable cause, there is no violation of the Fourth Amendment." Id. at 25.

Alternatively, if the Court finds that the Federal Defendants did violate Plaintiff's constitutional rights, they contend that both Defendant Morrison and Defendant Moriarty are entitled to qualified immunity. See id. at 27. The Federal Defendants argue that, even if the Court finds that they are not entitled to summary judgment as to Plaintiff's alleged unlawful detention and arrest, they are entitled to qualified immunity because they had reasonable suspicion to believe that Plaintiff was engaged in criminal activity both before and after the K-9 alerted to the presence of narcotics. See id. at 27-28. As to the alleged unlawful seizure of Plaintiff's laptop, the Federal Defendants assert that "the issuance of a search warrant (which depends, of course, on a finding of probable cause) creates a presumption that it was ...

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