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Russell v. Coyle

Decided: August 4, 1993.

DAVID RUSSELL, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
GEORGE T. COYLE, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County.

King, Landau and Thomas. The opinion of the court was delivered by King, P.J.A.D.

King

[266 NJSuper Page 652] This is an appeal by plaintiff from the grant of a motion for summary judgment in favor of defendant, a State Trooper, on the ground of qualified immunity. The action, brought under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983, sought damages for illegal seizure of property. The Law Division Judge concluded that there was no clear or apparent violation of plaintiff's constitutional rights established and that defendant's qualified immunity should prevail. See Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 638, 107 S. Ct. 3034, 3037, 97 L. Ed. 2d 523, 530-31 (1987); Kirk v. City of Newark, 109 N.J. 173, 181, 536 A.2d 229 (1988). We agree. The legality of the trooper's seizure of defendant's pill bottle in this case turned on the close factual point of when he first observed that the bottle did not have a proper prescription label on it -- whether before or after he took it out of the open glove compartment of defendant's car. The courts "have recognized that it is inevitable that law enforcement officials will in some cases reasonably but mistakenly conclude that probable cause is present, and we have indicated that in such cases those officials -- like other officials who act in ways they reasonably believe to be lawful -- should not held personally liable." Anderson v. Creighton, supra, 483 U.S. at 641, 107 S. Ct. at 3039, 97 L. Ed. 2d at 531. Although the State did not prevail on the motion to suppress in the criminal case, we are satisfied that the trial Judge correctly determined that the defendant should prevail as a matter of law on his qualified privilege claim in the civil case.

I

Plaintiff filed this civil complaint against Trooper Coyle on February 29, 1991 alleging a violation of his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983. No state law claims of any kind were asserted by plaintiff. The claim was based on an illegal seizure of a pill bottle on June 28, 1989 in Millstone Township, Monmouth County which followed the concededly legal motor vehicle stop of plaintiff's car for speeding.

After the stop on State Highway 33, Trooper Coyle asked plaintiff to produce his driver's license, insurance card and vehicle registration. Plaintiff handed over a New York driver's license and his insurance card but continued to search for the registration card in the glove compartment. While plaintiff searched, Coyle observed a translucent, amber-colored container with a white top in the glove compartment. He believed this was a "prescription legend bottle." Coyle asked Russell to leave the vehicle so that he could seize the container. Upon picking up the bottle, Coyle observed a "white and navy blue type of capsule" inside and then noticed that the bottle's label had been torn off.

Coyle requested plaintiff to accompany him to the nearby Hightstown State Police Barracks so that he could investigate the nature of the single capsule in the prescription bottle. Investigation concluded that the capsule was a controlled dangerous substance legally available only by prescription. Coyle then arrested plaintiff for possession of a prescription legend drug in violation of N.J.S.A. 2A:170-77.8, a disorderly persons offense, and possession of a controlled dangerous substance in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(1), a third-degree offense. The type of drug or pill remains unknown to us. Neither the container, the capsule, nor any laboratory analysis were ever produced in either the Municipal or Superior Court.

Plaintiff moved to suppress the evidence of the controlled dangerous substance based on an illegal seizure. On May 1, 1990 the Millstone Township municipal court Judge conducted a hearing

on the motion. After hearing the testimony of Trooper Coyle, the municipal court Judge denied plaintiff's motion to suppress, ruling that the seizure was justified under the "plain-view" exception to the Fourth Amendment Warrant clause.

Plaintiff then appealed to the Superior Court, Law Division. On August 17, 1990, after hearing oral arguments, Judge Kennedy reversed the municipal court Judge's ruling and suppressed the evidence. Judge Kennedy found on the record de novo that Trooper Coyle did not know that the item in "plain view" was evidence of a crime or contraband until after he had seized the bottle and examined it. The Judge stated, "there was no probable cause to associate that prescription bottle with criminal activity, especially in view of the fact that the officer did not see the label missing until after he pulled it out of the glove box. It was as simple as that." On December 11, 1990 the municipal court Judge dismissed all charges against plaintiff. Plaintiff then filed this civil action. As noted, Trooper Coyle moved for summary judgment in the Law Division on the ground of qualified immunity. On August 7, 1992 Judge Kreizman granted his motion and dismissed the complaint.

II

Plaintiff claims that Judge Kreizman erroneously granted summary judgment dismissing his constitutional claim. He asserts that an issue of fact existed on the applicability of the claim of qualified immunity. He contends that no objectively reasonable police officer could have believed that he had a legal right to pick up the pill bottle from the glove compartment, where ...


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