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Sliwinski v. Burns

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

May 29, 2015




         One night in April 2012, a masked man robbed a convenience store at gunpoint in the otherwise sleepy town of Haddam, Connecticut. The police thought they had tracked the robber's getaway car to perhaps the unlikeliest of places-the rectory of a Catholic church in nearby Middletown, Connecticut. But the police were ultimately proved wrong: they were misled by a putative witness's errant description of the getaway car. Unfortunately, before the police realized the error, they had entered the rectory without consent, handcuffed two priests there, and searched through much of the premises.

         The two priests have now sued the police, contending in principal part that the police violated their constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. The defendants have now moved for summary judgment. I will grant their motions in large part, except as to one of the officers. As to that one officer, I conclude that genuine issues of fact remain for trial with respect to his initial entry into the rectory and his search of one of the priest's cars.


         The following facts are undisputed or, if disputed, are stated in the light most favorable to plaintiffs. Plaintiffs are two Catholic priests-Fathers Richard Sliwinski and Pzemyslaw Jednaki. Defendants are officers of the Connecticut State Police, including Sergeant Charles Burns and Troopers Paul Gunn, Christopher Reid, Paul Pederson, and Larry Morello.[1]

         On April 16, 2012, someone robbed a gas station at Jasper's General Store in Haddam, Connecticut. Trooper Christopher Reid was the first to arrive on the scene and questioned the gas station attendant who described the suspect as a male with a black ski mask and gloves, and that he brandished a black handgun during the robbery. The suspect allegedly fled in a car toward Middletown, Connecticut.

         Reid then questioned another bystander, who said that he heard yelling at the store, went to investigate, and was told by the attendant about the robbery. The bystander said that he saw the getaway car and that he ran to his own car to give chase. He saw the car run a red light and weave in and out of traffic while travelling at a high speed, and then turn into a post office parking lot. According to the bystander, the getaway car was a Honda CRV, and he identified the license plate number.

         Reid passed on this information to the dispatcher, who broadcast it to Trooper Paul Gunn and other responding officers. Sergeant Charles Burns and another trooper then arrived on the scene and spoke to the attendant and the bystander who had identified and followed the getaway car. Both the attendant and the bystander gave written statements to the police. According to the attendant, he saw a dark-colored vehicle drive off quickly after the robber left the store, and he believed it to be the getaway car, driven by a second person. He said the robber was skinny and about 5'5” tall.

         A trooper ran a license plate search for the plate number that the bystander had provided. The plate number came back as a Honda CRV, which matched the make-and-model furnished by the bystander for the getaway car. The registration address associated with the suspect car was the rectory at Saint Mary of Czestochowa Church in Middletown. Sliwinski was the pastor of the St. Mary's church and lived at the church's rectory.

         Gunn drove to the rectory, where some local police from Middletown were already on the scene. A Middletown officer told Gunn they had knocked on the door to the rectory, but that no one had answered. Gunn left to pursue another possible lead, and when he returned to the rectory no other police officers were there.

         Gunn decided to investigate further at the rectory. He did not see any sign of the putative getaway car. Nor did he then believe that any priests who might live at the rectory were likely robbery suspects; instead, he suspected that their car could have been stolen for use in the robbery.

         Gunn searched for an entryway into the rectory. He walked down a pathway next to a garage and came upon a stone wall with a metal door in it. He knocked on the door and, receiving no answer, opened it and walked through. It led to an enclosed stairwell that he walked down and into a courtyard area. There he saw a man-who turned out to be plaintiff Pzemyslaw Jednaki-sitting and working at a laptop computer, apparently unaware that Gunn was there.

         Instead of identifying himself to Jednaki, Gunn entered through an unlocked door that adjoined the courtyard into a kitchen, apparently without knocking. Inside the kitchen was Sliwinski who was scaling a fish with a knife. Gunn told Sliwinksi to put away the knife, and Sliwinski put down the knife and greeted Gunn, shaking his hand. Sliwinski told him he was the priest at Saint Mary's church.

         Without explaining why he was at the rectory, Gunn asked Sliwinski where his car was, and Sliwinski told him it was in the adjoining garage. Gunn instructed Sliwinski to give him his keys and show him the car. Gunn entered the garage, followed by Sliwinksi, and upon seeing that the license plate matched that of the reported getaway car, he handcuffed Sliwinski. When Sliwinski asked what he had done wrong, Gunn replied, “You will find out later.” Doc. #56 at 14. Gunn then asked Jednaki to identify himself, and when Jednaki said his wallet with his identification was in his car, Gunn told him to stay where he was.

         Gunn then explained to Sliwinski that he was investigating an incident that had occurred in Haddam. Sliwinski said that no one had borrowed his vehicle and that he had been in Haddam earlier that day fishing and at another's priest's home.

         Gunn then searched Sliwinski's car. Sliwinski did not consent to the search of his car. As he did throughout the encounter, Sliwinski did not protest the search because he was confused and scared. For his part, Gunn claims that he handcuffed Sliwinski because he had now become a suspect in an armed robbery and he did not think it prudent to search the car with the suspect unsecured.

         Gunn found nothing of evidentiary value in the car. At around this time, according to Gunn, it “became more and more evident that the information [the police] had been given was likely faulty.” Doc. #56 at 19.

         Back in the house, Gunn questioned Sliwinski further. Sliwinski said that he had never stopped at a gas station. He said he had not run any red lights, but may have been speeding a bit, and that he accidentally turned into the Post Office driveway on his way home. His description of his driving route matched the bystander's description of the route that had been followed by the putative getaway car.

         At this time, Trooper Paul Pederson and several Middletown police officers arrived at the rectory. Gunn instructed one of the newly arrived officers to bring Jednaki up from the courtyard. Jednaki was not handcuffed, because Gunn did not have a second set of handcuffs.

         A trooper-either Gunn or Pederson-then began questioning Jednaki who stated that he had been in Middletown earlier in the day for between two and four hours, and he had at some point stopped at a gas station for cigarettes. At this point the interrogating trooper-whether it was Gunn or Pederson-“became agitated” and patted down Jednaki's clothing and, finding no weapons, handcuffed him. Doc. #56 at 19.

         The trooper who handcuffed him asked Jednaki for permission to search the rectory, and Jednaki replied that it was not his house, and he could not give permission. The trooper then instructed Jednaki to stand facing the shed and not to move. Leaving an officer to watch Jednaki, the trooper returned to Sliwinski in the garage.

         At some point, Gunn contacted his supervisor, Sergeant Burns, to inform him that the situation did not seem to match the bystander's report. Burns then asked Reid to re-interview the bystander, and this re-interview gave reason for more doubt. It became clear through this re-interview that the bystander had not actually seen the robbery suspect enter the getaway car, and that there was a period of time when he lost sight of the apparent getaway car. While trying to pursue the ...

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