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Sanducci v. City of Hoboken

September 29, 1998

ELLA SANDUCCI, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
CITY OF HOBOKEN, CITY OF HOBOKEN POLICE DEPARTMENT, POLICE CHIEF CARMEN LA BRUNO, DET. LT. EDELMAN GARCIA, JAMES ROOFE, ANTHONY BARTLEY, DANIEL DEL LA BUE, PETER FALCO, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS POLICE OFFICERS OF THE CITY OF HOBOKEN, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS, AND JOHN DOE, A FICTITIOUS PERSON, AND JOHN DOE, INC., A FICTITIOUS CO., DEFENDANTS.



Before Judges Baime, A.a. Rodr¡guez and Kimmelman.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baime, P.j.a.d.

[9]    Submitted September 16, 1998

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

This appeal is from a summary judgment dismissing plaintiff's complaint against the City of Hoboken, its Police Department and individual police officers, alleging false arrest and imprisonment and violations of the federal Civil Rights Act (42 U.S.C. 1983). In a written opinion, the Law Division found that plaintiff's arrest and subsequent detention were supported by probable cause and that no constitutional violation occurred. We agree and affirm the judgment entered essentially for the reasons expressed by the Law Division.

I.

We need not recount the facts at length. On December 16, 1993, plaintiff became embroiled in a dispute with her relatives, Mary and Edward McDonald and Maureen Santoro. After the dispute escalated into a physical altercation, all four individuals were arrested by members of the Hoboken Police Department who had witnessed the fracas. They were then transported to police headquarters.

The McDonalds and Santoro were charged with simple assault and were released. Plaintiff was also charged with simple assault. However, in a separate complaint and warrant, plaintiff was additionally charged with fourth degree stalking based upon the sworn statement of Mary McDonald. In the statement, McDonald claimed that plaintiff had engaged in a course of stalking on three separate occasions. McDonald also applied for a restraining order. Although the warrant accompanying the complaint was not signed by any judicial officer, the record indicates that an "on-call" municipal court Judge was telephoned and that bail was immediately set and posted. Plaintiff was released after spending approximately six hours in custody at the Hoboken police station. The charges against plaintiff were subsequently dismissed.

Plaintiff then brought this action against the Hoboken Police Department and individual members of the police force, alleging false arrest and imprisonment and violations of the Civil Rights Act. In its opinion granting defendants' motion for summary judgment, the Law Division found that plaintiff's arrest and detention were justified by the facts known to the police and by those contained in McDonald's sworn statement. It is against this factual backdrop that we examine plaintiff's arguments.

II.

We first consider plaintiff's contention that the Law Division erred by summarily dismissing her claim for violations of the Civil Rights Act. Plaintiff's pleadings in the Law Division were inartfully drafted. Read indulgently, her complaint alleges (1) the police lacked probable cause to arrest her for stalking and (2) her extended detention was violative of the federal Constitution.

A. Probable Cause

Plaintiff concedes that the police had probable cause to arrest her for the disorderly persons offense of simple assault. She asserts, however, that McDonald's sworn statement did not justify her arrest and detention on the charge of fourth degree stalking.

In 1961, the United States Supreme Court rendered its decision in Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Services of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978), holding that a state or local official could be found liable under section 1983 for depriving another person of his or her federal constitutional rights. Several years later, in Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 87 S.Ct. 1213, 18 L.Ed.2d 288 (1967), the Court recognized that an official could defend against a section 1983 action by asserting a defense of qualified immunity. The evolution of the law that followed was thoroughly described by our Supreme Court in Kirk v. City of Newark, 109 N.J. 173 (1988). We need not retread upon ground so exhaustively covered by that opinion. Suffice it to say, "a law enforcement official can defend a section 1983 claim by establishing either that he or she acted with probable cause, or even if probable cause did not exit, that a reasonable police officer could have believed in its existence." Id. at 184 (citing Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 663, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 3052, 97 L.Ed.2d 523, 546 (1987) (Stevens, J., Dissenting)); see also Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed.2d 271 (1986); Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). Questions presented within this framework of analysis are particularly amenable to Disposition by motion. See Kirk v. City of Newark, 109 N.J. at 187.

Probable cause is an elusive concept heavily dependent upon the particular factual complex. It is more than mere suspicion but less than legal evidence necessary to convict. State v. Mark, 46 N.J. 262, 271 (1966). It has been described by our Supreme Court as a "well grounded" suspicion that an offense has been committed. State v. Burnett, 42 N.J. 377, 387 (1964); see also State v. Waltz, 61 N.J. 83, 87 (1972); State v. Kasabucki, 52 N.J. 110, 116 (1968); State v. Laws, 50 N.J. 159, 173 (1967), cert. denied, 393 U.S. 971, 89 S.Ct. 408, 21 L.Ed.2d 384 (1968); State ...


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