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Sanders v. Coughlin

United States District Court, W.D. New York

March 30, 2017



          WILLIAM M. SKRETNY United States District Judge.


         Plaintiff commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on May 20, 2011, alleging that Defendant Casey Coggins, [1] a law enforcement officer employed by Defendant Niagara Frontier Transit Authority (“NFTA”), illegally seized and searched him in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. Presently before this Court are Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 51) and Plaintiff's Resubmitted Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 50). For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion is granted, and Plaintiff's motion is denied.


         On May 19, 2011, Officer Coggins was on bicycle patrol of the above ground rail stations connected to the City of Buffalo's light rapid rail system. (Defendant's Statement of Material Facts (“Defendants' Statement”), Docket No. 53, ¶¶ 1, 6, 7.) At approximately 12:20 p.m., a citizen stopped Officer Coggins near the outbound Lafayette Square Rail Station and reported that he believed a man in the vicinity was carrying a gun. (Defendants' Statement, ¶ 7.) The citizen described the suspect as a black male wearing a black shirt, a tan baseball hat, and glasses. (Defendants' Statement, ¶ 7.) Officer Coggins radioed the police dispatcher to report the information and to request back up. (Defendant's Statement, ¶¶ 7, 36.)

         Meanwhile, Plaintiff was waiting for a rail car at the Lafayette Station. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 8.) He matched the description of the suspect: he is a black male and was wearing a black shirt and tan baseball hat with glasses on it. (Defendant's Statement, ¶¶ 2, 9.) Officer Coggins saw Plaintiff board the rail car when it arrived at the station. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 10.) Because Plaintiff matched the description of the suspect, Officer Coggins instructed the dispatcher to hold the rail car while he investigated. (Defendant's Statement, ¶¶ 11, 36.)

         As Officer Coggins maintained visual contact with Plaintiff, a second citizen approached him and reported that he thought an individual who had just boarded the train had a gun. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 12.) A third citizen joined that conversation and reported that she too thought the individual had a gun. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 13.) Officer Coggins reported this additional information to the dispatcher, who advised Officer Coggins that he would hold the rail car and keep its doors open while Officer Coggins investigated.[2] (Defendant's Statement, ¶¶ 14, 36.)

         Immediately after this report, Plaintiff leaned out of the open door of the rail car. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 15.) Officer Coggins was standing alongside the rail car, observed Plaintiff lean out, and instructed him to go back into the rail car and sit down. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 16.) Plaintiff did not comply, and instead, leaned out further. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 16.) As he did so, Officer Coggins observed a square bulge in Plaintiff's waistband under his shirt, which he believed resembled the butt of a gun. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 17.) Plaintiff then motioned with his right hand in front of his waist. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 18.) Believing that Plaintiff may have a gun, Officer Coggins drew his weapon in response and ordered Plaintiff out of the rail car and against the station wall. (Defendant's Statement, ¶¶ 17, 18.) Plaintiff complied with Officer Coggins's order and stood with his hands on the wall and his feet spread. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 19.) Officer Coggins, assisted now by a Buffalo Police officer, conducted a pat-down search of Plaintiff while other Buffalo Police officers searched the rail car. (Defendant's Statement, ¶¶ 20, 21.)

         The pat-down search revealed a wad of newspapers folded into an “L” shape tucked into Plaintiff's waistband. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 22.) Officer Coggins then requested that Plaintiff produce identification, which he did. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 23.) Officer Coggins was unable to gather any more information about Plaintiff, however, because the NFTA computer system was not operating. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 24.) Plaintiff was then advised that he could leave. (Defendant's Statement, ¶ 25.)

         Plaintiff's interaction with Officer Coggins lasted approximately five minutes, from the moment Plaintiff first leaned out of the rail car to his release.[3]


         Cognizant of the distinct disadvantage that pro se litigants face, federal courts routinely read their submissions liberally, and interpret them to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520, 92 S.Ct. 594, 596, 30 L.Ed.2d 652 (1972); Burgos v. Hopkins, 14 F.3d 787, 790 (2d Cir. 1994). This is especially important when reviewing pro se complaints alleging civil rights violations. See Weinstein v. Albright, 261 F.3d 127, 132 (2d Cir. 2001). Since Plaintiff is proceeding pro se, this Court has considered his submissions and arguments accordingly.

         In his complaint, Plaintiff describes the nature of his suit as “illegal detention, ongoing harassments and threat to life, liberty and pursuits of happiness.” (Complaint, ¶ 2(B).) He notes that he previously filed suit against the NFTA, which ended with the late Honorable John T. Elfvin, United States District Judge, dismissing his case at the close of his proof. See Sanders v. Ritzer, et al., 97-CV-20E, Docket No. 52.

         Throughout his submissions to the court, and in particular in his supplement to his complaint (Docket No. 7) and his Resubmitted Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 50), Plaintiff references the Ritzer action and other encounters he had with NFTA officers over the years, including incidents in 1995 (allegedly arrested for not having proof of fair), 1996 (allegedly arrested and prosecuted for selling transfers, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct, resulting in acquittal), and 2009 or 2010 (allegedly stopped and detained by NFTA officers for making an illegal turn). (See also Docket No. 33 (discussing Plaintiff's claims.) Plaintiff also references an incident that post-dates his complaint in this case: an interaction on May 22, 2014, during which an NFTA officer stopped him for smoking a cigar in a rail station and searched his bag. (Docket No. 50, p. 6.) These incidents underlie Plaintiff's oft-repeated claims of a long-running course of harassment by NFTA personnel spanning 20 years.

         This case, however, involves only Plaintiff's interaction with Officer Coggins on May 19, 2011. That interaction gives rise to two claims, both under the Fourth Amendment: illegal seizure and illegal search. No other claims can reasonably be gleaned from Plaintiff's ...

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