American Bar Association
Media Alerts
Media Alerts - Gwynn v. City of Philadelphia - Third Circuit
Decrease font size
Increase font size
June 24, 2013
  Gwynn v. City of Philadelphia - Third Circuit
Headline: Police Department may detain its own officers for non-criminal searches as long as done so reasonably.

Area of Law: Constitutional Law

Issue(s) Presented: Whether a Fourth Amendment violation occurred where two police officers were ordered by their superiors to remain in a room, and empty their pockets, after being accused of theft during a stop and frisk.

Brief Summary: Two Philadelphia police officers sued the City and their superiors for violating their Fourth Amendment constitutional rights. They also sued for overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act as well as several state law claims. The two officers claimed that their rights were violated when they were ordered to stay in a room and subjected to a search. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants and the Third Circuit affirmed.

Extended Summary: Two Philadelphia police officers sued the city and several fellow officers for constitutional violations under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and several state law claims. The Third Circuit affirmed the District Court's grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants. On December 15, 2009, while on duty, Plaintiffs stopped and frisked men they believed were dealing drugs. One of the men they frisked accused Plaintiffs of stealing money from him.

When the two officers returned to headquarters, their superior ordered them into his office and informed them about the complaint and that they were being referred to Internal Affairs Bureau. Plaintiffs were led to another superior's office and were ordered to remain there.

Plaintiffs were offered water and were allowed to watch television. They were not allowed to use their cell phones, however, and they were questioned about the incident. Plaintiffs were also asked to remove their jackets and outer vests, empty out their pockets, pull up their pant legs, and pull down their socks. They were also asked to empty out their wallets and told that their cooperation was in their "best interest." Plaintiffs complied during the hour they waited because the orders came from their "superiors and supervisors." Plaintiffs were eventually questioned by Internal Affairs officers and their lockers were searched. The district court ultimately granted defendants' motion for summary judgment.

On appeal, Plaintiffs argued that the District Court erred in allowing defendants to withdraw their admissions under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 36(a)(3). The Court held that the admissions were properly withdrawn because, otherwise, their ability to present a defense would have been jeopardized and Plaintiffs also failed to demonstrate prejudice.

Second, Plaintiffs argued that they were wrongfully seized under the Fourth Amendment when they were ordered to wait for Internal Affairs in their superior's office and were improperly searched when they were asked to empty their pockets. In affirming the grant of summary judgment, the Third Circuit reasoned that police officers do not shed their constitutional safeguards when employed. However, a person is seized under the Fourth Amendment only when his freedom of movement is restrained either by means of physical force or a show of authority. Importantly, though, every order an officer feels compelled to obey does not amount to a seizure. Police departments must maintain the highest degree of discipline, confidentiality, efficiency, and esprit de corps among its rank. Officers must obey and follow orders. Characterizing work-related demands as seizures whenever an officer feels compelled to obey them would not further any interest protected by the Fourth Amendment and it would significantly interfere with police operations.

Agreeing with the Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits, the Third Circuit held that to determine whether a police officer has been seized, courts will examine whether the order was issued in the supervisor's capacity as an employer or as the law enforcement arm of the state. The Third Circuit recognized that whether a police officer would reasonably have perceived his superior officer to be issuing orders as his supervisor or as a law enforcement agent will not always be clear. However, in the current case, the Court held that there was no suggestion that Plaintiffs were under criminal investigation, and the circumstances surrounding the investigation were not particularly coercive.

Plaintiffs also argued that their superior officers conducted an unreasonable search when they were asked to empty out their pockets. Although the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches by a government employer, work-related searches of a government employee's person or property often fall into the "special government needs" exception. The Third Circuit found that the current case fell into that category.

Lastly, the Plaintiffs unsuccessfully argued that they were due overtime pay. However, they offered no evidence or proof to this matter and summary judgment was proper. To read the full opinion, please see:

Panel: AMBRO, HARDIMAN and COWEN, Circuit Judges.

Argument Date: April 16, 2013

Date of Issued Opinion: June 19, 2013

Docket Number: No. 12-2208

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Tien Cheng

Counsel: Brian M. Puricelli, Attorneys for Plaintiff-Appellants; Kelly S. Diffily, Attorneys for Defendant-Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Hardiman

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Mary E. Levy

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 06/24/2013 12:12 PM     3rd Circuit  

FuseTalk Enterprise Edition - © 1999-2018 FuseTalk Inc. All rights reserved.

Discussion Board Usage Agreement

Back to Top