Is it permissible for a casino to detain a patron suspected of being a "card counter" for the purpose of questioning? This issue is presented in the context of a tort action brought by four patrons of a casino who allege that they were falsely imprisoned by its security personnel. Defendants are the Boardwalk Regency Hotel Casino and several of its employees.
The matter is before the court on a motion for summary judgment filed by defendants. Therefore, the court must accept as true for the purpose of the motion the descriptions of the incident provided by plaintiffs in their depositions. Judson v. Peoples Bank & Trust Co. of Westfield, 17 N.J. 67, 73-75 (1954).
Plaintiffs are two brothers and two of their friends. All four are occasional social gamblers. They arrived at the Boardwalk Regency on December 26, 1979, played various casino games, including blackjack, and lost money. They returned to the gambling area around 11 a.m. the next morning and began playing blackjack. After playing for about an hour they were approached by two casino security guards dressed in uniforms. Plaintiffs were notified that they had been identified as card counters and were directed to accompany the guards. One plaintiff was grabbed by the back of the collar and pulled away from the blackjack table. The others were grabbed by the arms and led away. This physical removal happened so quickly and so forcefully that some plaintiffs were unable even to remove their chips from the table. All four were led to a nearby area where they were joined by a games manager, who ordered them to produce identification so that they could be registered and prevented from playing blackjack. At first plaintiffs refused to produce identification, protesting that they were not card counters. However, they were threatened with arrest if they refused to cooperate, and they then acceded to the demand. When identifications were produced, the games manager wrote plaintiffs'
names on a pad, told them they would not be permitted to play blackjack again at the Boardwalk Regency or any other casino and directed them to leave. During this entire confrontation the two uniformed casino security guards remained on either side of plaintiffs. The three plaintiffs who were deposed all testified that they did not feel free to leave the casino between the time they were pulled away from the blackjack table and when they produced identification.
After unsuccessfully seeking to lodge a complaint concerning the incident with an official of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, plaintiffs arranged a meeting with the assistant manager of the casino. The assistant manager acknowledged that the casino personnel had been at fault and said that he would like to make amends by buying plaintiffs a meal and allowing them back into the blackjack game. However, plaintiffs declined the offer and departed from the casino. This lawsuit followed.
The complaint sets forth three separate theories of liability arising out of this incident: assault and battery, slander and false imprisonment. However, defendants concede that a contested material issue of fact is presented by the assault and battery claim, and plaintiffs concede that their slander claim must be dismissed due to an inability to show any damage to their business, professional or personal reputations resulting from the incident. Therefore, the sole question at this juncture is whether there is a contested material issue of fact on the false imprisonment claim.
The tort of false imprisonment is established upon showing any "unlawful restraint upon a man's freedom of locomotion." Earl v. Winne, 14 N.J. 119, 128 (1953). The unlawful restraint need not be imposed by physical force. As observed in Earl v. Winne:
This constraint may be caused by threats as well as by actionable force, and the threats may be by conduct or by words. If the words or conduct are such as to include a reasonable apprehension of force and the means of coercion is at hand, a person may be as effectually restrained and deprived of liberty as by prison bars. [at 127]
Furthermore, the assertion of legal authority to take a person into custody, even where such authority does not in fact exist, may be sufficient to create a reasonable apprehension that a person is under restraint. Hebrew v. Pulis, 73 N.J.L. 621 (E.&A.1906); see, also, 1 Restatement, Torts 2d, § 41 at 61 (1965).
There can be no serious doubt that the elements of false imprisonment would be established if plaintiffs' version of this incident were believed by a jury. According to plaintiffs, they were accosted by uniformed security guards who physically removed them from the blackjack table. They were then subjected, while surrounded by security guards, to an interrogation by a games manager, who said that they would be arrested unless identification was produced. Under these circumstances, plaintiffs reasonably could have concluded that they would be forcibly ...