Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sec. 1983 - police involvement in private property dispute

Harvey v. Plains Twp. Police Dept - 3d Cir. March 29, 2011

To prevail on a § 1983 claim, plaintiff had to show, first, that she was deprived of a constitutional right and, second, that the alleged deprivation was "committed by a person acting under color of state law." Harvey I, 421 F.3d at 189 (quoting West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988)). The first element was not in dispute. The case turned on whether plaintiff could prove that the police officer acted "under color of state law." 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Action under color of state law "requires that one liable under § 1983 have exercised power possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law." Abbott v. Latshaw, 164 F.3d 141, 146 (3d Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). We have considered state action in the context of private repossessions before. The test is whether the officer maintains neutrality or takes an active role in the repossession resulting in an unconstitutional deprivation. Id. at 147. "The mere presence of police at the scene of a private repossession does not, alone, constitute state action." Id.

An officer‟s presence may be requested to maintain the peace, and the officer appropriately does so by remaining neutral. An officer abandons neutrality once he takes an active role and assists in the repossession. The relevant inquiry, then, is whether an officer affirmatively aided a repossession such that he can be said to have caused the constitutional deprivation. Such aid may take the form of facilitation, encouragement, direction, compulsion, or other affirmative assistance in the repossession.3 See Marcus v. McCollum, 394 F.3d 813, 819 (10th Cir. 2004). However, liability will only attach when an officer plays a "principal role" in the seizure. Abbott, 164 F.3d at 147. In short, an officer may be liable for causing a constitutional deprivation if he "aid[s] the repossessor in such a way that the repossession would not have occurred but for [his] assistance." Marcus, 394 F.3d at 819.

The distinction between maintaining neutrality and taking an active role is not to be answered in the abstract. There is no precise formula, and the distinction lies in the particular facts and circumstances of the case. See Burton v. Wilmington Parking Auth., 365 U.S. 715, 722 (1961) ("Only by sifting facts and weighing circumstances can the nonobvious involvement of the State in private conduct be attributed its true significance."). To determine whether a police officer acted under the color of state law, the facts and circumstances of the police officer‟s role in the private repossession must be examined in their totality. See Howerton v. Gabica, 708 F.2d 380, 384 (9th Cir. 1983).