Dellenbaugh v. Gobrecht (Pennsylvania 2020) 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 168454

Excessive Force; Qualified Immunity

An armed robbery was committed by a suspect who was tall, with a tan complexion, wearing a black t-shirt and tan shorts, brandishing a silver pistol. Later that shift, a shots fired call came in from near the robbery scene. Upon arriving at the scene, LE met with a witness who identified a vehicle driving away as the vehicle involved in the shots fired call. The driver of that vehicle was wearing a black t-shirt with black hair and a goatee. LE believed he was either Middle Eastern or Hispanic. There were three passengers. LE gave chase, but lost sight. A call came in about a similar vehicle wrecked nearby. Witnesses reported seeing two males flee the collision scene, one in a red t-shirt and one in a white t-shirt. About 20 minutes later, in the same general area, LE saw two white males sitting on some steps. One had a black t-shirt slung over his shoulder and was wearing tan shorts; the other was wearing a white-shirt. Both were sweating profusely and seemed winded, even though it was around 3 in the morning. LE pulled in front of the males to contact them, but did not use lights or sirens. LE asked if he could speak to subject, but he did not respond. LE told subject to stop and don’t move, but he took off running. LE did not have a chance to see subject’s hands so were unaware whether he had a weapon. LE gave chase but broke off when injured and concerned that he was chasing subject into wooded territory. Meanwhile, after questioning the remaining male, LE determined that neither were involved in the robbery. However, it is unclear if this was communicated to the LE who were chasing subject. PSD team was deployed at the wooded area and located subject lying face down in brush with his hands beneath him. Subject did not respond to several commands to give up. Handler moved in closer with PSD and gave another warning to show his hands. Again, there was no response. PSD commanded to apprehend and PSD engaged the back of subject’s knee. Initially, subject fought the PSD, but then complied and showed his hands. PSD was manually disengaged when subject was handcuffed. No firearm was found. Subject was found not guilty of all charges resulting from the pursuit. Subject alleged that he had not recognized pursuers as police officers as they did not identify themselves as such, and then the dog bit him.

The court found that LE had probable cause to arrest subject on the charges that were ultimately filed against him. The court also considered qualified immunity. The court quoted Kopec v. Tate (3rd Cir. 2004) 361 f. 3d. 772, 777 (Police officers are permitted to use a reasonable amount of force to effect an arrest; the degree of force is dictated by the suspect’s behavior. This standard will be applied from the perspective of a reasonable officer on scene, taking into account that LE is often forced to make split-second decisions in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving). The court also recognized that the use of a PSD to bite and hold a suspect is not per se unreasonable and that a failure to give a warning prior to a bite is not objectively unreasonable. Based on the facts above, the court held that the use of force in this case was objectively reasonable and therefore LE was entitled to qualified immunity and the motion for summary judgment was granted on behalf of LE.