BELTZ v. COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA et al
MEMORANDUM AND/OR OPINION. SIGNED BY HONORABLE GENE E.K. PRATTER ON 10/25/17. 10/25/17 ENTERED AND COPIES MAILED TO PLAINTIFF.(jaa, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA,
OCTOBER;~ , 2017
Plaintiff Christopher Beltz, a prisoner incarcerated at the Philadelphia House of
Correction, filed a motion proceed in forma pauperis and a pro se complaint raising claims
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, based on criminal proceedings that led to his conviction. He
claims to have been the victim of prosecutorial misconduct. For the following reasons, the Court
will grant Mr. Beltz leave to proceed in forma pauperis and dismiss his complaint.
The gist of Mr. Beltz's complaint is that prosecutors committed misconduct in connection
with two criminal cases filed against him, primarily by unfairly pressuring him to plead guilty
and by withholding exculpatory evidence. In April of 2015, Mr. Beltz and seven co-defendants
were charged with burglary and related crimes in the Philadelphia Municipal Court. See
Commonwealth v. Beltz, Docket No. MC-51-CR-0011156-2015. Mr. Beltz alleges that the
charges were dismissed as to five of his co-defendants in September of 2015. He also suggests
that the charges against him were dismissed on that date, but the docket for his case indicates
The following allegations are taken from plaintiffs complaint and public dockets for his
underlying criminal proceedings.
only that the court granted a continuance. In any event, the case was transferred to the
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas where it proceeded. See Commonwealth v. Beltz, Docket
Mr. Beltz alleges that the prosecutors were overzealous and acted in bad faith to deny him
the right to a fair trial by delaying the case to pressure him to plead guilty. He also alleges that
the judge presiding over his case, the Honorable Ann M. Coyle, pressured him to take a plea
agreement and conspired with prosecutors to secure his conviction by guilty plea. Mr. Beltz
ultimately pled guilty to conspiracy. See Commonwealth v. Beltz, Docket No. CP-51-CR0010543-2015.
Mr. Beltz also alleges that he was pressured to plead guilty in an unrelated case in which he
was charged with driving under the influence. Mr. Beltz did not plead guilty, but the judge
presiding over Mr. Beltz's case denied his motion to suppress and found him guilty. See
Commonwealth v. Beltz, Docket No. CP-51-CR-0000405-2017. Mr. Beltz alleges that the
prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence that would have led to his acquittal.
Mr. Beltz filed this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against the Commonwealth of
Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf, the City of Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney, the
Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, and Judge Ann M. Coyle. He also appears to be raising
claims against the former Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter, Interim District Attorney Kelly
Hodges, Assistant District Attorney Leonard Champaign, and several other assistant district
attorneys who prosecuted his cases or his co-defendants' cases, although he did not name those
individuals in the caption of the complaint as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10.
Mr. Beltz primarily seeks damages, declaratory relief, and an order overturning his convictions.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Court grants Mr. Beltz leave to proceed in forma pauperis because it appears that he is
not capable of paying the fees to commence this civil action. Accordingly, 28 U.S.C. §
1915(e)(2)(B)(i) & (ii) require the Court to dismiss the complaint if it is frivolous or fails to state
a claim. A complaint is frivolous if it "lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact," Neitzke v.
Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989), and is legally baseless if it is "based on an indisputably
meritless legal theory." Deutsch v. United States, 67 F.3d 1080, 1085 (3d Cir. 1995).
To survive dismissal for failure to state a claim, the complaint must contain "sufficient
factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v.
Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quotations omitted). "[M]ere conclusory statements do not
suffice." Id. The Court may also consider matters of public record. Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch.
Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006). Additionally, the Court may dismiss claims based on an
affirmative defense if the affirmative defense is obvious from the face of the complaint. See
Fogle v. Pierson, 435 F.3d 1252, 1258 (10th Cir. 2006); cf Ball v. Famiglio, 726 F.3d 448, 459
(3d Cir. 2013), abrogated on other grounds by, Coleman v. Tollefson, 135 S. Ct. 1759, 1763
(2015). As Mr. Beltz is proceedingpro se, the Court construes his allegations liberally. Higgs v.
Att'y Gen., 655 F.3d 333, 339 (3d Cir. 2011).
"[W]hen a state prisoner is challenging the very fact or duration of his physical
imprisonment, and the relief he seeks is a determination that he is entitled to immediate release
or a speedier release from that imprisonment, his sole federal remedy is a writ of habeas corpus."
See Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 500 (1973). Accordingly, any challenges to Mr. Beltz's
convictions and related imprisonment must be pursued in a habeas case after exhausting state
remedies rather than a civil rights action. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254.
Furthermore,"to recover damages [or other relief] for allegedly unconstitutional conviction
or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a
conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence has
been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal
authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a
writ of habeas corpus[.]" Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 486-87 (1994) (footnote and citation
omitted); see also Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 81-82 (2005) ("[A] state prisoner's§ 1983
action is barred (absent prior invalidation)-no matter the relief sought (damages or equitable
relief), no matter the target of the prisoner's suit (state conduct leading to conviction or internal
prison proceedings)- if success in that action would necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of
confinement or its duration." (emphasis omitted)). Mr. Beltz's claims are predicated on
allegations that he was maliciously prosecuted and falsely convicted due to prosecutorial
misconduct. However, as Mr. Beltz's convictions have not been overturned or otherwise
invalidated, his claims are not cognizable in a civil rights action.
Even if Mr. Beltz's claims were cognizable in a civil rights action, many of the defendants he
sued are immune from suit. Judge Coyle is entitled to absolute judicial immunity from Mr.
Beltz's claims against her because judges are entitled to absolute immunity from civil rights
claims based on acts or omissions taken in their judicial capacity, so long as they do not act in
the complete absence of all jurisdiction. See Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 355-56 (1978);
Azubuko v. Royal, 443 F.3d 302, 303-04 (3d Cir. 2006) (per curiam). Similarly, any of the
prosecutors who Mr. Beltz sued or intended to sue are entitled to absolute prosecutorial
immunity from Mr. Beltz's damages claims because prosecutors are entitled to absolute
immunity from liability under § 1983 for acts that are "intimately associated with the judicial
phase of the criminal process" such as "initiating a prosecution and ... presenting the State's
case." Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430-31 (1976). District Attorneys and other
supervisory prosecutors are likewise entitled to absolute immunity from claims based on their
role in pursuing a prosecution on behalf of the Commonwealth. See Van de Kamp v. Goldstein,
555 U.S. 335, 348-49 (2009).
Mr. Beltz's claims against the Commonwealth fail because the
Commonwealth is entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity from all of Mr. Beltz's claims and,
in any event, is not considered a "person" subject to liability under§ 1983. See Will v. Mich.
Dep 't ofState Police, 491 U.S. 58, 65-66 (1989).
Furthermore, "[b ]ecause vicarious liability is inapplicable to ... § 1983 suits, a plaintiff must
plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has
violated the Constitution." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 676. Mr. Beltz has not alleged how Governor
Wolf, Mayor Kenney, or former Mayor Nutter were involved in the violation of his rights
whether due to their own misconduct or their deliberate indifference to known deficiencies in a
policy or procedure that violated Mr. Beltz's rights. See Barkes v. First Corr. Med., Inc., 766
F.3d 307, 320 (3d Cir. 2014), reversed on other grounds, Taylor v. Barkes, 135 S. Ct. 2042
(2015). It is also not clear how the Governor and Mayors of Philadelphia could be held
responsible for the actions of an office that is run by the Philadelphia District Attorney.
For the foregoing reasons, the Court will dismiss Mr. Beltz's complaint. Mr. Beltz will not
be given leave to amend because amendment would be futile, although the Court will dismiss
without prejudice any non-cognizable claims that could be raised against a non-immune
defendant in the event Mr. Beltz's convictions are ever invalidated. An appropriate order
follows, which shall be docketed separately.
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